Amal Basry reminded us often that her name meant hope in English. In the last few weeks I have kept thinking about her, this rare survivor of the boat that came to be known as SIEV X. 353 of her fellow asylum seekers died when SIEV X went down just over a decade ago. Many unanswered questions remain about its sinking.
Amal Basry, who kept herself stubbornly, impossibly, alive by clinging to the body of a drowned woman amidst the wreckage of SIEV X, became the most compelling witness for the people lost in its sinking. In the few short years she had in Australia before her death from breast cancer in 2006, she compulsively told and retold the events of that horrific night. Her testimony inspired an extraordinary response in film, painting, theatre and writing as Australians attempted to comprehend this massive, unnecessary toll of lives. In a powerful speech then opposition Senator John Faulkner speculated about whether SIEV X had been the target of a covert exercise of "the license to kill." He called the government of the day to account, as well as calling on us all, as citizens, to face up to the magnitude of the event and its implications.
The speech is a high point in recent parliamentary history, representing Faulkner, and his party, at their best. A decade later, the debate about asylum seekers appears to be at its nadir, with the positions of both major parties premised, not on the prevention of another SIEV X but rather on its opposite: what Ghassan Nakhoul refers to, in a slightly different context, as the fantasy of wishful sinking. For it is the unpalatable truth of the current parliamentary debate that the death by drowning of asylum seekers, ostensibly the eventuality that supporters of off-shore processing most wish to prevent, is also that which is at the core of their admittedly cruel policies.
A genuine desire to prevent another SIEV X, and other more recent mass losses of life, would call for, amongst other things, a commitment to adequate monitoring and rescue processes. The focus on a punitive banning of all boat arrivals indicates that it is rather the wishful sinking and wishful drowning of asylum seekers that underwrites the refugee policies of our two main parties.
While a number of commentators seem to have succumbed to the rhetoric of wishful sinking, and the arguments that accompany it, those who have worked long and hard on the issue, such as the Australian Refugee Council, remain steadfast in their opposition (pdf). But what can we learn from remembering SIEV X, and from Amal Basry, in the face of mass indulgence in the collective fantasy of wishful sinking?
Arnold Zable’s essay, "The Ancient Mariner" recreates an unforgettable scene from Amal’s narrative as SIEV X begins capsize:
"I saw five people, a man and four women. They were standing together and writing something on a piece of paper. The boat was climbing up and falling down. . . . [T]hey told me, ‘We are writing a letter to the angel of the ocean" . . . "Angel of the ocean, please help us. Angel of the ocean, please, look after our children. Angel of the ocean, do not by angry. Angel of the ocean, do not leave us. Angel of the ocean, please save us.’ And they folded up the paper and threw it into the water."
In this act in which hope and terror entwine, refugees, as they entrust their lives to the angel of the ocean, reaffirm their decision to leave behind intolerable lives; to choose a chance for life on the sea over living death on dry land. In doing so they assume the responsibility to hope, a belief in the promise of the future. Despite the covenants entered into by Australia as a state priding itself on its civilised values, wishful sinking policies are a denial of that responsibility and that hopeful future for refugees.
The scene of refugees writing their letter to the angel of the ocean is one I have come to understand better through what might seem at first an unlikely source: Deborah Bird Rose’s meditation on water and justice. Rose describes "water business," a term arrived at through many years of working with Indigenous communities, as "finding ways to protect and defend the fullness of water in itself and in its relations with other things." Its antithesis is "unmaking water" by "impair[ing]water’s living presence." The "deeply death-oriented work" of unmaking water is, however, "mystified often by being performed under banners that seem to signal life: production … economic advantage, national security etc, etc".
Though Rose’s immediate point of reference is the dispute over the waters of the Murray, taking a cue from Aboriginal ecosystems, "the fullness of water in itself" includes rivers and seas together. Rose’s questions about "what kinds of life-affirming and life-supportive work" can "acknowledge the unique character of water in Australia" are also questions about affirming and supporting the lives of those seeking refuge along the coasts and shoreline of this girt-by-sea nation.
While refugees who entrust their lives to the oceans affirm its living complexity with their own stories and bodies, their hopes for a future, the death-oriented work of unmaking water proceeds apace, camouflaged and mystified under a series of rousing banners: Christian duty, law and order, stopping the boats, protecting the borders, securing the nation; even saving lives.
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