Christmas Islanders remember worst refugee boat crash

The screams of asylum seekers on a rickety boat hurtling towards the rocky shore of Christmas Island still haunt Zainal Abdul Majid who tried to rescue them 10 days before Christmas in 2010.

The softly spoken, fourth generation Christmas Islander remembers going to work amid heavy monsoonal rain and gale force winds on December 15, 2010.

The choppy conditions played a factor in the largest loss of life in Australian waters in peacetime in over a century.

Fifty people out of 89 asylum seekers from Iraq, Iran and Kurdistan died after the boat's engine shut down.

The dead included 15 children just metres away from the island at a place called Rocky Point.

"I can see half-conscious bodies floating, I can see babies, it was terrible," he told AAP at the site of the SIEV 221 boat crash, staring at the jagged rocks.

"We just dropped in the water and dragged them (asylum seekers) from the wreckage and took them to shore."

Christmas Island resident Zainal Abdul Majid.
Zainal Abdul Majid rescued asylum seekers when their boat crashed on Christmas Island in 2010.

SIEV stands for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel with numbers assigned to the vessels in sequential order as identified by the multi-agency Maritime Border Command.

The West Australian coroner's findings in 2012 revealed a three-month-old baby was the youngest person to die in the crash onto the rocks.

Closer to Jakarta than Perth, Christmas Island became part of Australia's remote territories in 1958 after the British ceded it.

Born and bred on the island, Mr Abdul Majid, 64, worked as a mine planner, a union activist, owner of a halal supermarket and was one-time president of the Islamic Council as well as an SES volunteer.

"It happened on a weekday as I was going to work at 6am. It was very rainy, very bad weather," he recounted in details corroborated in multiple investigations including by a parliamentary committee 2011.

"We tried to rescue them amid the conditions of the weather and the sea. The whole community, everyone was down there, we had the police there."

"We tried to tell them to steer out of the cliff face, it was coming very quick, it was drifting and drifting and then it smashed on the cliff face and bam," Mr Majid acted out the motion with a strong clap.

"Everything smashed into pieces."

Mr Abdul Majid said the navy came to help in the rescue efforts but it was too late.

"It took us until 6pm in the evening to finish off everything, transporting the bodies to the hospital mortuary over and over again," he said.

The victims' bodies had to be forensically examined for about two weeks.

"They sacrificed their lives, they were looking for a better place and I feel sorry for the families because as Muslims we wanted to bury them as soon as possible," he recounted. 

A memorial to asylum seekers who died in a boat sinking.
A memorial to 50 asylum seekers who died when their boat crashed into Christmas Island.

A number of families related to the victims sued the federal government for breaching its duty of care by not rescuing their loved ones but that law suit was tossed out in the NSW Supreme Court in 2017.

University of Queensland law professor Andreas Schloenhardt who has written extensively about migrant smuggling networks in the region and researched the SIEV 221 incident extensively, said Australia rejected its obligations under international refugee law.

He said there are "responsibilities in relation to protecting people from refoulement to a place where they may face or fear persecution as mandated by the Refugee Convention to which Australia is a party."

Refoulement means the return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution.

"At that time, Australia appeared to be rejecting or refusing these obligations."

A few metres up the hill past the island's only traffic light stands a plaque  commemorating the SIEV 221 victims.

Part of the plaque is a busted up propeller, in reference to the boat's motor shutting down.

"We reflect on this day with sadness," it reads.

"The loss of each person's life diminishes our own because we are part of humankind."

This AAP article was made possible with the support of the Meta Australian News Fund and The Walkley Foundation.

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