Refugee rights protesters take Titanic action

The sinking of RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912 was one of the worst maritime disasters of all time. 1517 people died. Those killed were disproportionately poorer working class passengers and crew. While more than 60% of first class passengers survived, fewer than 25% of third class passengers did, and fewer than 24% of the crew. The Titanic serves as a clear example of capitalism costing lives: the disaster was exacerbated because the ship did not have enough lifeboats to save everybody.

Today the Titanic is part of mainstream history. There have been several films made about it. In 1997, James Cameron directed the most expensive film ever made to that point, about the Titanic, a blockbuster hit grossing more than any other film until Avatar came along.

An exhibition about the Titanic was on display at the Melbourne Museum for half of this year. According to Beat magazine, it became the most popular exhibition in Melbourne of all time. A third of a million people visited the exhibition between May 17 and September 23, and as the exhibition was winding down in November, sessions were still being booked out.

Without belittling the great tragedy,  the Titanic was almost a century ago, and there have been greater maritime disasters since. In 1987 the MV Doña Paz and the MT Vector collided, resulting in the death of 4375 people. Of course these were Philippine boats and so outside Western consciousness. But even the Halifax harbour explosion in Canada, in which 1600 people lost their lives when a French ship packed with munitions from World War I collided with the Imo, hasn’t slipped into popular consciousness in the same way as the Titanic.

SIEV X

One disaster that has been buried is the sinking of the SIEV X. The unnamed vessel branded “Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel 10 (SIEV X)” sank just north of Australia on October 19, 2001. At least 353 asylum seekers drowned while heading to Australia (45 survived). These deaths were a direct result of Australian government policy. A Senate inquiry into the deaths found it “extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a theatre of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event, without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision-making circles”.

While many passengers on the Titanic intended to start a new life in America, the refugees on board the SIEV X were seeking a new life away from the persecution of their homelands. In part Australia held off rescuing the refugees for fear that after coming on board they would seek asylum like those who arrived on the MV Tampa (as is their right under international law) a month earlier. Part of the racism being whipped up against the refugees at the time claimed that they were throwing their children overboard in order to gain asylum.

The 353 lives lost in the SIEV X tragedy are fewer than the number lost on the Titanic, but this number is still huge and, being so recent and on Australia’s doorstep with our government failing to act, it should be receiving a lot more attention than it has. The government’s continued policy of preventing refugees from easily seeking asylum has forced many to take unsafe boats in order to come to Australia.

Refugee plight

As an activist and artist in solidarity with the refugees, Van Rudd decided to use the Titanic exhibition to highlight the plight of refugees. Rudd decided to set up a mannequin of a refugee in a pram next to the exit of the Titanic exhibition at the Melbourne Museum, with a plaque detailing what happened to the SIEV X. “I wanted people to make the connection between the suffering of those on the Titanic and the suffering of the refugees on that boat.”

Rudd’s art instillation attracted a fair amount of attention, passers-by stopping to examine the work. Many read the plaque and took photos. Some of the museum’s staff even commented that they agreed with the sentiment that Rudd was conveying. Other staff, however, quickly called security to have Rudd and the other Revolutionary Socialist Party activists involved in the artistic action removed.

While lasting only 20 minutes or so, Rudd’s art work stopped scores of museum goers and attracted an article by Australian Associated Press journalist Steve Lillebuen which was reprinted in several newspapers including the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, the Adelaide Advertiser as well as carried on SBS News, News.com.au and the Yahoo News websites. Footage is now also available on YouTube.

As Rudd is quick to point out, “The policies that caused the SIEV X disaster are continuing. While the state government is prepared to invest in an exhibition to remember what happened 100 years ago, they are silent on what is happening today.” In unveiling his art work at the museum, Rudd challenged the Victorian government not to be complicit with the federal government’s refugee policy. “We can’t be silent about the deaths of these people or the deaths which will occur unless Australia’s refugee policy is changed.”

TITANIC INTERVENTION - Melbourne, 2010