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Asylum boat arrives on eve of anniversary -

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Asylum boat arrives on eve of anniversary

Broadcast: 14/12/2011

Reporter: Heather Ewart

A boat carrying asylum seekers has been intercepted near Christmas Island off Western Australia, on
the eve of the anniversary of the 2010 disaster, when 50 lives were lost.


CHRIS UHLMANN, PRESENTER: With the collapse of the Government's Malaysia solution, the tide of
irregular boat arrivals is rising. Eight, carrying more than 600 asylum seekers, have arrived on
Christmas Island in the past fortnight alone. Another was intercepted today on the eve of the
anniversary of last year's disaster when 50 people drowned as their boat crashed on the island's
ragged cliffs. Political editor Heather Ewart reports.

HEATHER EWART, REPORTER: It's a harsh and uncompromising coastline. On a good day on the shores of
Christmas Island there are scenes of tranquillity and great beauty. On a bad day during the swell
season the seas can be dangerous and deadly.

And so it was one year ago for asylum seekers onboard the Indonesian fishing boat SIEV-221. 50 of
them drowned after their boat struck the cliff and horrified locals watched a catastrophe unfold.

As the anniversary approaches, it's revived memories for everyone involved on that terrible day.

CHRIS BOWEN, IMMIGRATION MINISTER: Just utter devastation, just imagining as much as anyone can
what those people would have been going through, looking for their children, the children
themselves. I mean, what can you say? Just utter devastation.

BRIAN LACY, CHRISTMAS ISLAND ADMINISTRATOR: I mean, there are a lot of people on the island who say
that day Christmas Island lost its innocence.

CHRIS BOWEN: I'll certainly always remember the raw emotions going through all of us on that day.
I'll certainly always remember my reaction and the reaction of those around me.

BRIAN LACY: It was quite horrific. By the same token I saw some of the most courageous acts that
I've ever seen in my life performed by residents of Christmas Island.

HEATHER EWART: Is it hard to try to put the accident behind you?

SAFIEH (voiceover translation): There's not a moment that we don't think about it, especially
through the nights. I think about my husband until the morning. It is terrifying.

HEATHER EWART: It was a tragedy that stunned the nation. For many of the survivors and those who
tried to save them and their loved ones, it's left permanent scars.

Some have tried to deal with personal loss by painting. Others cling to the miracle of having any
family left at all.

Like this Iranian group now making a new life together in outer Melbourne. Safieh lost her husband
in the crash. She and her daughter survived along with her sister and brother-in-law and their
daughter. They're thankful to have refugee status, but Safieh still misses her husband desperately.

SAFIEH (voiceover translation): Very much. We all know that he is in a good place. He is a very
good man. He was kind to other people. All of our family loved him. ... I miss him so much, but we
all believe he is in a good place now.

HEATHER EWART: On the island itself 12 months on, residents remember the disaster like it was
yesterday. The local administrator had the grim task of meeting survivors soon after their rescue.

BRIAN LACY: They were in a terrible state of shock. My wife and I went to visit them in the
detention centre and it was just terrible to hear the way they were pleading for people to find
their babies or their husband and to see them. They were in a - like I say, they were living in a
dream and couldn't believe - a nightmare, I should say - couldn't believe what had happened.

CHRIS BOWEN: I must say I think the hardest part actually came the next day when I got the
information that babies had died, a two-month old and an eight-month old, and I had to tell the
Prime Minister that, and that was obviously hard for her and a hard conversation for anybody to
have to be outlining just the full devastation that we were dealing with.

HEATHER EWART: Of course no-one has suffered more than the survivors. This family we met for
afternoon tea is trying hard to settle into the Melbourne community. While they mourn the loss of
Safieh's husband, whose body was never recovered, they know they may not be alive today if it
weren't for the people of Christmas Island.

SAFIEH (voiceover translation): We are very grateful. The people of Christmas Island were very kind
to us.

ABBAS SOLTANI (voiceover translation): They helped us a lot at the first moment we crashed. The
people tried to save our lives by themselves. They threw life jackets and they threw a rope from
the rocks to the sea. They called the police and they tried very hard to help us.

HEATHER EWART: So they saved your life?

ABBAS SOLTANI (voiceover translation): I owe my life to the people of Christmas Island, yes.

CHRIS BOWEN: Nobody was thinking about whether these people were refugees or asylum seekers or what
they thought about border protection policy. They were getting in and saving human lives.

BRIAN LACY: I think it did bring about a change in the attitude of some of the people on the island
about refugees and about asylum seekers and what they're prepared to go through to try to come to a
better life.

HEATHER EWART: It's also raised fears on the island of another disaster, especially as the boats
keep on coming.

BRIAN LACY: As the swell season approaches in particular - and it is approaching now - there would
be, I imagine, that fear of a repeat of that sort of thing happening again, and particularly as we
see boats that come in without being detected until they're getting close to Christmas Island.

HEATHER EWART: What would you say to other people who are thinking of getting boats to Christmas
Island or to Australia after what happened?

SAFIEH (voiceover translation): It's not worth all of the problems. It's not worth to lose someone
you love. However much you want to live in another country, it's not worth it to lose somebody.

HEATHER EWART: When Safieh, her husband and young daughter fled Iran to board the ill-fated
SIEV-221, they left behind her 18-year-old son. He planned to join them when they were settled in
Australia. Now she's anxious to see that happen as soon as possible.

SAFIEH (voiceover translation): Considering the horrible tragedy that happened to me, I haven't
been able to see my son. ... I understand that every country has its own laws, but, considering my
position, I think they should treat our case as urgent.

CHRIS BOWEN: No matter what the Australian people - individuals might think about border protection
or refugee policy, I think people would understand that cases like this need to be dealt with
flexibly and compassionately.

HEATHER EWART: With plans underway for a memorial service on Christmas Island tomorrow, some
residents and survivors have already flagged that it's too painful to attend. Others welcome it as
part of the healing process. One way or another, this tragedy has changed all of those involved.

CHRIS BOWEN: There happened to be TV cameras there to capture this tragedy and show the Australian
people about it. This will inevitably happen on the high seas and we may or may not even know that
there was a boat on the water. We may or may not even know that people lost their lives. It may
have happened since Christmas Island and we don't know about it. And that's what's really
confronting about this and really - really does worry me. And that's what drives me and I think
drives the Government to keep us focused on trying to discourage boat journeys to Australia.

HEATHER EWART: For the residents, there's a desire to be better prepared.

BRIAN LACY: There is an ongoing planning strategy to try to find ways to ensure that if it did
happen again there will be some greater capacity to be able to help rescue the people that might be
washed out of the boats or actually hanging onto the cliffs.

HEATHER EWART: And for one survivor who lost so much, there's a determination to look to the

SAFIEH (voiceover translation): I hope to be able to find my old self very soon. I like to finish
English and after that I hope to find a job. ... Because the kids need me, when I look at them and
I see that I have two children, then I tell myself that I have to be strong. The pain of this
tragedy hasn't broken me yet.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Heather Ewart reporting.