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SIEV 221 tragedy: Asylum seekers‘ families to sue Government over 2010 Christmas Island accident

Families of asylum seekers killed and injured when their boat was smashed onto rocks at Christmas Island are suing the Government.

Fifty Iranian and Iraqi asylum seekers died when huge seas drove their boat, known as SIEV 221, into Christmas Island’s cliffs in December 2010.

Lawyer George Newhouse yesterday launched legal action in the New South Wales Supreme Court on behalf of eight families, arguing Australia was responsible and the Commonwealth breached its duty of care.

Mr Newhouse represented survivors at the 2012 inquest, saying at the time that government policies were putting lives at risk.

Mr Newhouse will argue the Commonwealth knew or should have known that there were vulnerable men and women on the high seas that night.

He says the Government has failed in its duty of care by failing to keep its rescue vessels seaworthy.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has defended the actions of the Government, saying the claim „beggars belief“.

„Frankly, I think this is a shameful and offensive claim to be making. Sure, people have the right to bring cases to court – we are a free country – but they have to be accountable for the claims,“ he said.

Aboard the boat known as SIEV 221 (Suspected Irregular Entry Vessel 221) on December 15, 2010, were 89 Iranian and Iraqi asylum seekers and three crew.

In the monsoon weather, the vessel escaped detection and it was residents on the island watching the tragedy unfold who raised the alarm.

While some people on the boat were rescued, 50 people died. Mr Newhouse says the dangerous rescue mission could have been avoided if intelligence was acted upon sooner.

„It’s not a question of not caring, it’s a question of not having the service seaworthy,“ he said.

„On the morning in question there were rescue vessels on Christmas Island but they didn’t work, they were unseaworthy.

„They could have saved lives and they could have also protected the Australian Navy officers who also put their lives at risk to save the asylum seekers.

„I think there is a subtext in Australia’s refugee deterrence policy that if you come by sea we’re not very good at saving lives and neither are the Indonesians and you take your life into your own hands.“

But Christmas Island administrator Jon Stanhope says the local community did everything it could in an attempt to save the asylum seekers.

„I defend absolutely the right of the asylum seekers … to pursue the action that they’re pursuing,“ he said.

„But my concern is to ensure that there is not any suggestion that this community, the community I represent, did not do everything within their power to try and save these people.

„There were valiant efforts made by everybody here – the Navy, customs and locals – to save those who were on the boat.

„People were rushing around looking for life jackets, looking for anything that would float and throwing it into the sea.“

Government says border protection has its ‚full confidence‘

Mr Morrison says Australia’s border-protection services have his full confidence.

He has strongly defended customs and border protection officials and Navy personnel involved in responding to the incident.

„The men and women who served that day showed a level of bravery, self-sacrifice that we have seen only on rare occasions and the response of the people of Christmas Island, fellow Australians there, was also extraordinary,“ he said.

„For this claim to be brought in this way today … it beggars belief.

„This is like someone who has saved from a fire suing the firemen. It’s like someone who has been saved by an ambulance officer at the scene of an accident being sued for saving the person’s life.

„It’s like someone who was held hostage and being saved by police and suing the police.

„This is really, I think, a shameful and offensive claim to be bringing and again, I just want to give my total support to the men and women of the Australian Customs and Border protection service and the Australian Navy, whose reputation, whose character and whose conduct on that day is unimpeachable“

However, Mr Newhouse says the Australian Government’s failure to maintain safe, functional rescue vessels violated their duty of care to both the asylum seekers and Navy officers.

„It’s like having an ambulance service but you can’t drive the ambulance because the engine’s broken,“ he said.

„Why set up a rescue service, or an ambulance service using the analogy the minister uses, if the ambulance doesn’t work? They know that there is a risk, there is a duty to save lives, they set up a rescue service but they don’t fund enough money to it to ensure that the vessels are seaworthy.“

Labor frontbencher Brendan O’Connor says the rescuers should be commended.

„The Customs and Naval personnel did remarkable things that day,“ he said.

Inquiry found people smugglers to blame

After the initial eight-month hearing into the disaster, coroner Alastair Hope laid the blame firmly on the people smugglers.

But he criticised Commonwealth authorities for the lack of adequate rescue vessels on the island. He also urged that measures be taken to increase surveillance of waters around Christmas Island for incoming asylum seeker vessels.

A convicted people smuggler who organised asylum seeker boats, including the SIEV 221, is currently serving 14 years in jail after pleading guilty to organising four boats to travel from Indonesia in 2010 and 2011.

Mr Newhouse, a Labor candidate at the 2007 election and head of the social justice practice at Shine Lawyers, has conducted a succession of asylum seeker cases.

He is participating in the current constitutional challenge to the legality of Australia’s asylum seeker processing centre on Nauru in the Nauru Supreme Court.


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