Canberra asylum seeker memorial in jeopardy

Dozens of Catholic schools participating in the preparation of a Canberra memorial to the 353 people who drowned in the SIEV X asylum seeker boat tragedy in 2001 are still awaiting for word from authorities as to whether their planned three week exhibition can go ahead.

SIEV X, an acronym for "Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X", is the name given to the overloaded Indonesian fishing boat carrying asylum seekers that sank en route to Australia's Christmas Island on 19 October 2001 at the height of the Government's harsh border protection operations.

353 people - mostly women and children - drowned in the worst maritime disaster in our region since World War II.

According to a media release by the SIEV X Memorial Committee, permission has so far only been given for a one day ceremony to mark the fifth anniversary of the tragedy planned for this Sunday 15 October.

Large wooden poles decorated by school students around the country will be raised to show the planned design of a permanent memorial.

The design features a procession of poles from the water's edge and stretching over 300 metres of hillside at Weston Park in Yarralumla. The poles are each named for one of the children and parents who died on the vessel, and each pole is an individual artwork sent by a different school, church or community group.

Canberra's complex administrative environment means that the group can proceed with the ceremony, which has been approved by Canberra City Parks.

However, the standing of the poles for a further three weeks, allowing Canberrans to visit the artwork and learn more about the tragedy, is still in doubt due to Federal Government uncertainty over how to classify the event.

Psychologist Steve Biddulph, who began the project four years ago, says that the committee has been talking with authorities since 2003 to ensure "the project goes smoothly."

"But we were shocked several weeks ago, when the NCA classified the three week exhibition as a permanent work, requiring a ten year waiting period. The group have asked for clarification of the guidelines, since they do not normally apply to temporary art exhibitions."

Project director Beth Gibbings has seen it grow from a small group meeting in a church hall to thousands of student artists and supporters all over the country.

"We are simply asking to stand up these poles up for three weeks, so that Canberrans can view the artwork in their own time. There will be several thousand very disappointed school students and church groups, travelling to Canberra to see their work displayed.

Without permission, we can only stand up the poles by hand, for about ten minutes."

The Memorial Project arose among Uniting Church congregations across the country who felt the loss of life on SIEV X was too great to go unremembered, and felt responsible for Australia's role in the tragedy.

The project quickly grew to include other denominations and other faiths, and has been welcomed by survivors and bereaved fathers of the families lost, who will participate in the ceremony.

Among the Catholic schools participating is Corpus Christi College from Nundah on Brisbane's Northside.

Josephite Sister Annette Arnold says that the Mary MacKillop spirit that underpins the Corpus Christi community has been expressed in the college community's solidarity with those who drowned by providing one of the poles.

"Our particular pole is in memory of an eight year old boy whose name has not been released by the Federal police," said Sr Annette Arnold.

Staff and students have contributed to the artwork on the pole which expresses the community's solidarity, Sr Annette said.

Earlier, the whole school community participated in a ritual to honour the un-named boy, his family and all those who drowned as well as to send for the pole on its mission and journey to Canberra.

"The ritual was very moving and the presence of many refugees in the college community made it even more poignant," Sr Annette told CathNews.

Photo: Corpus Christi College, Nundah

Sievx Memorial (Media Release, 6/10/06)
Local school honours unnamed boy (Corpus Christi College, Nundah, Media Release, 30/9/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
SIEV X website

Edmund Rice Centre confirms 39 more deportations to danger (CathNews, 4/10/06)
Killed asylum seeker details sent to DIMA (CathNews, 14/8/06)
Off-shore processing failed dead asylum seekers: Edmund Rice (CathNews, 10/8/06)
Nine rejected asylum seekers killed: Edmund Rice Centre (CathNews, 8/8/06)
Detention stuff-ups no surprise to Edmund Rice researchers (CathNews, 3/5/05)
Edmund Rice Centre claims at least 35 refugees sent back to danger (CathNews, 29/9/04)
Bishops welcome release of detention centre children (CathNews, 26/8/03)

11 Oct 2006