Amal Basry’s life inspires hope

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When Amal Basry died on the 18th of March this year, all asylum seekers lost a courageous voice. She was one of the survivors of the sinking of the so-called SIEVX (Suspected Illegal Entry Vehicle X) in which 353 people lost their lives. Amal survived the night in the ocean, clinging to the body of one of her fellow passengers. She is one of those who saw the lights of boats nearby, boats that never came. Indonesian fishermen rescued them in the morning and, at her insistence, a search was carried out that found her son, the last survivor, pulled from the sea.

Amal Basry was a refugee from Iraq and she suffered all that the people of that country endured. Loved ones were lost in the Iran-Iraq war, some were jailed and tortured by Saddam Hussein’s regime, one was killed by a U.S. bomb, others died after taking part in the failed rebellion against Saddam, which was encouraged by the first President Bush. Her husband fled to Australia, where he was granted a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV). Amal and her son then followed, which put them on board the boat out of Indonesia that we now know as SIEVX.

Controversy continues over Australian Navy inaction at the time the SIEVX sank. If the Howard Government and its accomplices have their way, we may never know the truth. One certainty is that Amal would not have been on that boat if her husband had access to family reunion rights once his refugee status was accepted. These rights are denied to TPV holders. Many of those on board SIEVX had loved ones already in Australia on TPVs, including three young sisters who drowned.

I only heard Basry speak once, at the first commemoration of SIEVX at Edwardes Lake in Reservoir. I felt tears at her description of that night in the sea, and staggered by the power of her words to evoke our common humanity with the victims of that shameful event. Amal took her responsibility as a survivor and a witness seriously. Even when terminally ill, she would leave her sick bed to speak about SIEVX and what it meant.

At the time of her death, Amal was working with filmmakers Sue Brooks and Steve Thomas on a fifty-minute documentary to be called Hope. Many hours have been filmed, but there are funding problems for the editing stage. Two refugee advocates, Rosalie Flynn and Joan Nestle, have launched a fund to raise $10,000 to complete Hope. As they put it, “we do this because we believe this is a story that must be told, that by contributing to such a project we are refusing the cold heartedness of these times, and because we believe … others who hear of this project will want to be part of creating a film that refuses official silences.”

The arrival of West Papuan asylum seekers is the first real test of the Howard Government’s intentions since the concessions on refugees made in response to Petro Georgiou’s call for reforms. Howard’s response has been to “take Australia off the map for refugees.” The legislation he is trying to ram through Parliament will create a situation worse than anything that has gone before. Permanent off-shoring of asylum applications is, in reality, deportation and a complete abrogation of Australia’s commitments under the UN Convention on Refugees. This is a time to continue the struggle. We need to draw on all our resources, and the example of Amal Basry’s courage and commitment is one of those resources.

The Howard Government works hard to keep the victims of its policies anonymous. TPVs and other forms of temporary “protection” enforce the silence that allows this anonymity. Amal Basry spoke out in the face of all the power the government held over her. This is what made hers a precious voice in the struggle, and one that others will be able to hear if there is enough support for the film fund launched by Flynn and Nestle.

Vale Amal Basry. All fighters for human rights in Australia should mourn your passing.

Tony is a member of the Refugee Action Collective in Melbourne.

* Cheques should be made payable to Refugee Voices and mailed to Rosalie Flynn at 7 Alister St, North Fitzroy, 3068 or Joan Nestle at 4 Fitzgibbon Ave, West Brunswick, 3055.

Plans are under way to construct a National SIEVX Memorial in Canberra.
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