We were very wrong about an 'arrived' yet vanished boat
During the December 2010 Christmas weekend, two newspapers broke the news that a boat with asylum seekers was feared missing.
We didn't believe them. Sadly, we were very wrong.
The lead up to Australia's 2010 Christmas weekend resembled a post-earthquake zone where large sections of the nation were either in severe shock or in a state of boatpeople panic. Just ten days ago, on December 15, a boat we soon came to know as SIEV-221, smashed to smithereens on the rocks at Christmas Island. Not just the country, but the entire world had watched a rickety boat and dozens of passengers' bodies smash to pieces against the razor-sharp Rocky Point shore of the island.
When we prepared our annual boat arrivals summary, we wrote:
Australia saw an all-time record number of boats arrive on its shores. Predictably, this went accompanied by howls of slander and disdain by the conservatives for the government's decency in allowing boats to land, and an equally hot neurotic shiver by the Rudd, then the Gillard government, while the electorate was divided between those who knew that boat journeys are a fact of life for Australia and those who screamed that they were arriving in their thousands, illegally and clandestinely.
The Christmas boat report
The first report, on Christmas Day, came from the West Australian, reporting fears that a boat with 97 passengers had not arrived and had not been heard from since its departure from Indonesia on November 14. It also reported that its informant was aware of a 'rumour' that a vessel had arrived earlier in the month - on December 2. The report did not refer to Customs or Immigration Department boat arrival records.
The next day, Boxing Day on the 26th December, the Sun-Herald added the "Exclusive" tag to its full two-page spread, complete with more than a dozen photographs of the passengers by its seasoned reporter Natalie O'Brien. The story used the same Sydney-based informant.
Published boat arrivals
Increased government openness about boat arrivals was part of a radical policy overhaul implemented by the first Rudd government. The arrival of asylum seeker boats had once more become public, and all arrivals were duly announced by the Minister for Home Affairs. At Project SafeCom we collated these records here, and indeed, a vessel with 97 passengers arrived on December 2, 2010.
|Australian boat arrivals - December 2010
|near Christmas Island
|north west of Ashmore Island
|south west of Ashmore Islands
|vessel crashed at Christmas Island Rocky Point,
42 Iraqis, Kurds, Iranians (and crew) rescued,
30 bodies recovered
|north-north-west of Ashmore Island
|south-east of Ashmore Island
|(Iranians, Iraqis) north-east of Ashmore Island
|north-east of Ashmore Island
So, thinking rationally and laterally, based on facts we already knew, the following scenarios could represent what had happened to the 'missing passengers':
Initially, we kept insisting that the boat with its 97 passengers had already arrived, but the photos of the missing passengers and the insistence of Sun-Herald reporter Nathalie O'Brien did not relent. Eventually we had to consider that two boats with 97 passengers had sailed from Indonesia in the same pre-cyclone season period of 2010. There was a missing boat, and its passengers remain unaccounted for.
Below is a selection of the media coverage of the missing boat. For the record we have included our own rather embarrassing denial as reported by The Age reporter Virginia Ginnane.
Click the links below to jump down to the articles and items on this page with the same title.
2 January 2011: The SIEV-221 drama: lessons from a disaster - Will anything be learnt from the wreckage of the SIEV-221 off Rocky Point? If anywhere Australian politics is broken and bankrupt, it is around maritime asylum seekers arriving on its shores. Labor is still captured in a fatal strangehold of its perpetual neurosis since the 2001 'Tampa election', while conservative-radical politician Tony Abbott and his immigration spokesman Scott Morrison continue with their brazen and opportunistic baiting of Labor with a continuous 'stop the boats' howling.
1 June 2010: The 2009 missing Hazara boat - On October 2, 2009, a boat with 105 refugees sailed from an unknown Indonesian port to Australia. One of the passengers phoned his New York family to tell they were on their way now. Nothing more was heard of the person who called or from anyone else on board. This is the page for those passengers.
NewsCore / The Herald Sun
December 09, 2010 6:04am
Indonesia has detained 77 illegal migrants after their attempt to travel to Australia ended with their boat suffering engine failure, police said overnight.
Sumenep police operational head Edy Purwanto said the migrants, from Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan, departed from a harbor in Surabaya but got into mechanical difficulties while still in Indonesian waters.
They were rescued by police after drifting for eight hours and taken to an island off eastern Java.
"They are being investigated by the police in Kangean island. They consist of 52 men, 13 women and 12 children," Mr Purwanto said.
He said the boat's Indonesian captain, from East Nusa Tenggara province, was also being interviewed.
Thousands of asylum seekers head through Southeast Asian countries on their way to Australia every year and many link up with people smugglers in Indonesia for the dangerous voyage.
Canberra hopes to set up a regional processing center for refugees in East Timor in an attempt to reduce the flow of asylum seekers heading to Australia.
December 20, 2010 12:00am
Fears are held for at least five asylum-seeker boats that have set sail from Indonesia for Christmas Island since 2008 but are missing.
A sixth boat ferrying asylum-seekers from Malaysia to Indonesia in 2008 was believed to have sunk with the loss of 86 lives, said Afghan Hazara community spokesman Hassan Ghulam.
Of the six boats whose fate was unknown, most interest was centred on a vessel reportedly carrying 105 passengers that departed from near Jakarta in early October last year, Mr Ghulam told The Australian.
The traditional wooden boat went missing in heavy seas within days of leaving port.
Mr Ghulam said relatives reported receiving panicked telephone calls from passengers.
"They were in telephone communication with a smuggler named Hijaz.
"On the second day, they (passengers) called and said the sea is very rough -- what should we do?" he said.
The boat's Indonesian captain is alleged to have warned that seas were too rough to turn the boat around so Hijaz is said to have reassured passengers that it was all right to proceed with the voyage.
The boat never made it to Christmas Island and Mr Ghulam said he had received several inquiries from relatives about its fate.
Pamela Curr, from the Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said: "I've had a number of emails from Malaysia and Holland, from people looking for relatives."
Mr Ghulam said that in 2008 another boat carrying Afghan asylum-seekers from Malaysia to Indonesia sank and at least 86 people perished.
The fate of three small boats, which set off for Christmas Island from Indonesia carrying between six to 10 passengers, was also unknown, he said.
As tensions continued to run high among detainees at Christmas Island yesterday over the wreck of the boat carrying up to 100 asylum-seekers on Wednesday, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen was asked to respond to claims by the UN refugee agency's regional representative, Richard Towle, that Australia's immigration detention system was clogged with rejected asylum-seekers.
"I don't think, in fairness, that is exactly what he said," Mr Bowen said, defending the government's "very robust returns policy".
"We have seen rejection rates increase over recent months; that takes some time to flow through the system in terms of returns."
The West Australian
December 25, 2010, 2:30am
Fears are held for the safety of 97 asylum seekers missing after their boat left Indonesia on November 14 bound for Australia.
Families of some of the missing have contacted refugee advocacy groups in Australia in a desperate bid to get news of their relatives.
The vessel is believed to be about 35 days overdue.
Jamal Daoud, spokesman for the Sydney-based Social Justice Network, said his group has passed on photographs of 13 of the missing to the Immigration Department but had heard nothing back.
It comes after up to 48 asylum seekers lost their lives last week when their boat smashed against rocks at Christmas Island.
Mr Daoud said the department was refusing to confirm or deny whether the asylum seekers were being held in immigration detention in Australia.
He said it was very unusual for asylum seekers not to contact their families on arrival in Australia.
His organisation had heard rumours that the boat had arrived in Australia on December 2 but none of the families had been contacted and no evidence of the arrival could be confirmed.
A department spokesman said asylum seekers were allowed to contact their families on arrival and most did.
"The department has an established process which provides for the identification of people in immigration detention from inquiries made by people contacting the department.
"Where information is provided to the department which enables the positive identification of a client in detention the department notifies that client of the inquiry.
"The client in detention is given the opportunity to call the person making the inquiry, or to give consent to the department to notify the inquirer of their status," he said.
Mr Daoud said the families of the missing mainly Iraqi and Iranian asylum seekers were trying to get news of their loved ones.
Families contacted the Social Justice Network from Iran, Iraq and Norway after hearing of the Christmas Island boat tragedy.
"So far we have been contacted by five families whose last contact with these people was the 13th of November," Mr Daoud said.
He said his group's intelligence indicated that the November 14 vessel had been organised by different people smugglers to those behind the ill-fated December 15 vessel.
The November 14 boat was organised by an Algerian and Afghan group whereas the boat that broke up on Christmas Island was the work of Iranian people smugglers.
Mr Daoud said the missing vessel had been similar in size and design to the boat that foundered on the cliffs of Christmas Island.
He said asylum seekers could easily find people in Jakarta willing to smuggle them to Australia.
He said if no word was forthcoming from the department about the missing asylum seekers, members of his group would fly to Jakarta to try to find out about their fate.
He said it was not known where the vessel intended to land in Australia but Christmas Island was the most likely destination.
Refugee groups claimed in January that 105 asylum seekers died when their boat sank between Australia and Indonesia but this was never officially verified.
December 26, 2010
These are the faces of some of the 97 other asylum seekers feared to have perished at sea while en route to Australia from Indonesia.
Frantic relatives of 14 of the missing people say they last had contact with them on November 13.
Relatives from Iraq and Iran who have contacted welfare groups in Australia said they last received a call from relatives saying they were in Jakarta and were due to leave by boat the next day with a group of about 97 people bound for Australia.
Although the journey from Indonesia by sea usually takes from two to four days, and a boat did arrive in Australia early this month, no further contact has been made.
The missing boat was due to arrive more than three weeks before the boat tragedy on Christmas Island on December 15 in which at least 48 asylum seekers died.
"We have been receiving many phone calls from family members that have lost contact with their beloved ones," said Jamal Daoud of the Social Justice Network.
"They told us that there were 97 persons on the boat. A few of the family members contacted Indonesian authorities to explore if their family members are in jail or detention, but the answer was always negative."
Mr Daoud said if they had already arrived in Australia it was unusual not to have heard from any of them. He said when asylum seekers were taken into detention they were given access to telephones to call their families to say they had arrived.
Refugee advocates who have been making inquiries in Indonesia say they have been told the missing boat had been organised by an Algerian people smuggler and was "lost".
Mr Daoud said there was a possibility the boat's engine had failed and they were shipwrecked on a remote island.
"We are thinking of sending someone to Indonesia to investigate," Mr Daoud said.
A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection said it was unaware of claims of a missing boat.
"If Border Protection Command, which manages day-to-day maritime surveillance and response operations, holds any safety concerns in relation to a vessel that has been detected, such information is passed to the Rescue Co-ordination Centre in the Australian Maritime Safety Authority to co-ordinate a response," a Customs spokesperson said. "No such detection was made and no rescue action was taken in the period which is the subject of the question."
Mr Daoud said the photos of the missing people were sent to the Department of Immigration and to others in detention centres more than a week ago in an effort to determine if anyone had seen them.
The Department of Immigration told The Sun-Herald it could not comment on the case but did say it had an established policy for identifying people in detention when inquiries were made.
A spokesman said if a positive identification of a person in detention was made, the detainee was told someone was looking for them and given an opportunity to respond. Alternatively they could give the department permission to contact the inquirer and tell them their status.
It is believed none of the missing people was on the boat tagged the SIEV 221, which crashed into the cliffs at Christmas Island almost two weeks ago.
Yesterday a boat carrying 57 asylum seekers was intercepted north-east of Ashmore Island. The passengers were expected to be transferred to Christmas Island.
Do you know more? Email n.obrien(at)fairfaxmedia.com.au
December 26, 2010 - 11:49am
AAP / The Age
Ninety-seven asylum seekers feared to have perished at sea are most likely on Christmas Island, a refugee advocate says.
A boat matching the description of the one believed to be missing en route from Jakarta arrived in Australia earlier this month, according to a federal government website.
There were concerns almost 100 people had died on their way to Australia after relatives failed to hear from them, Fairfax newspapers reported.
Fourteen relatives from Iraq and Iran contacted welfare groups in Australia, saying they last spoke to family members on November 13, when they were told the boat would leave Jakarta the next day.
Fairfax reported 97 asylum seekers were aboard the boat, which was expected to arrive in Australia more than three weeks before the boat tragedy on Christmas Island on December 15.
But Jack Smit, of the human rights group Project SafeCom, says he is "very confident" the boat arrived in Australian waters earlier this month.
A media release on the website of Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor states HMAS Wollongong boarded "a suspected irregular entry vessel" northeast of Christmas Island on December 2.
"Initial indications suggest there are 97 passengers and three crew on board," the website says.
"The group will be transferred to Christmas Island where they will undergo security, identity and health checks and their reasons for travel will be established."
Mr Smit said it was important that boats were only reported missing when they had failed to turn up.
"I am very confident this is the same boat," he told AAP on Sunday.
"It's really clear because as soon as a boat arrives the minister releases a press release.
"We can't confirm anything because if the boat is missing, it's missing (but) a lot of people will now be concerned with no reason."
A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection said it was unaware of claims of a missing boat.
Sunday May 8th 2011
A ship with 97 people on board left Indonesia for Australia 175 days ago but there has been no contact with it since, writes Natalie O'Brien.
Six photos: Some of the missing ... (clockwise from top left) Abdul Wadud Rahmani; Abdul Hai Rahmani; Hamed Ebrahimi; Ali Hussein Enayat Bakhsh; Zeiaullah Sediqi; Ahmad Othman.
Shafiqua Hamid last spoke with her brother Abdul Hai Rahmani on November 13 last year. He, his cousin Abdul Wadud Rahmani and friend Zeiaullah Sediqi were on an Indonesian boat about to set out for Australia.
In that conversation, her brother told her the boat was due to leave in 15 or 20 minutes.
"He has called me from the boat and told me that he feels a bit sick and that there are many families with children," says Hamid, who now lives in Germany.
Abdul told her he had been staying in Jakarta while waiting for the boat to be arranged and had given her the Indonesian mobile phone number of Pakistani people smuggler Mohammed Ali, who arranged his trip.
That was the last she heard of him. She tried to make inquiries but was told that "he is probably in Australia now and that he is also accepted".
Hamid has since tried calling Mohammed Ali, but the number has been disconnected.
Today will be 175 days since there has been any contact with them and the 97 people thought to have been aboard that boat.
The Sun-Herald first raised the alarm about the missing boat in December, after worried relatives began calling advocates in Australia trying to find out if it had arrived. Those on the boat had promised to phone when they reached Christmas Island. The Department of Immigration gives all new arrivals access to phones to let their families know that they are safe.
Kareem Othman, who lives at Blackett in Sydney's north-west, has been waiting for news of his brother Ahmed Hadadd Mohammed Othman. He has rung every detention centre in Australia. His brother, 43, who is married with four children, was last heard from on the same date as the others.
Also desperate for news is Umm Hamed, the mother of 17-year-old Hamed Ebrahimi from the Daykundi province of Afghanistan, who was also on the boat.
Every few weeks, she emails this newspaper.
"I really worry about my son ... he is just 17 years old and he is so young. I can't help crying please help me," she writes.
"Life was bitter for me. I cry day and night. Please help me.
"Any information that you have the fate of them tell me.
"Whether their boat sunk?"
Azita, an Iranian woman now living in Melbourne, has been waiting for her childhood friend Mohammed Rezai. He, too, told her he was on his way to Australia and leaving on November 13.
She says he was to call her when he arrived at Christmas Island. The call never came.
From what The Sun-Herald has been able to establish, it seems the boat had a mix of Iranian, Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers. The stories are consistent regarding the last time the asylum seekers were heard from, November 13, and the names of the smugglers involved: Lais from Algeria; Anwar Makasar from Indonesia; an Iranian called Ali Kurdi or Ali Hamid; and three middlemen from Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Chotay, Abdul Sendi and Ismail.
Sydney lawyer George Newhouse wrote to Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O'Connor, asking for help on behalf of the families. O'Connor wrote back, saying "neither Border Protection Command nor the Australian Maritime Safety Authority have any information relating to a venture that matches the details provided in your correspondence".
His office did not offer to make any inquiries with other agencies or to raise the matter with Indonesia.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has been similarly unhelpful. The office has not responded to requests for an interview or for help in raising the issue of the missing boat.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young says she is troubled that after six months there is still no updated news from Australian or Indonesian authorities. She says this would undoubtedly cause anguish to the family members who already fear the worst. Ms Hanson-Young says the case showed the government "cannot have it both ways on its approach to asylum seekers".
"The Prime Minister has repeatedly said there must be a regional answer to a regional problem. For that to happen with the problem of people movement, especially of those seeking asylum, cases like these need full and rapid responses from Australian authorities together with our regional neighbours. Buck passing cannot be used to simply suit authorities at the time."
Asylum-seeker boats, known to the Customs and Border Protection Service as suspected irregular entry vessels (SIEV), usually take between two and four days to reach the waters around Christmas Island from Indonesia.
Government statistics show that there was a boat that arrived in Australia on December 2 with 97 people on board and three crew. But it was not the same boat.
Investigations into the whereabouts of the missing people have included the circulation of photographs and names to the Department of Immigration, refugee advocates and people still in detention centres throughout Australia.
The Sun-Herald made inquiries in Indonesia and also asked the International Organisation for Migration there to check if the missing people had been arrested or detained in Indonesia.
"Unfortunately those names are nowhere to be found," said Jihan Labetubun, the organisation's information officer.
In previous cases in which asylum seekers have been arrested in Indonesia, they have been able to get word to their families.
A source at the Red Cross in Australia says it is concerned. "These missing asylum seekers are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, aunties and uncles, and their families - who are thousands of miles away - are understandably desperate for news of their fate."
"We hope the government and its agencies, such as the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Australian Customs and Border Protection and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority will use all the resources at their disposal and take all the necessary steps to help determine the fate of the boat and its occupants."
The fate of the missing vessel was brought into focus in December after the shipwreck on Christmas Island of the boat known as SIEV 221, in which about 50 asylum seekers died. Many of their bodies were lost at sea.
There have been previous tragedies involving asylum seekers, including in November 2009 when a boat capsized 350 nautical miles north-west of Cocos Island and 12 people were lost at sea.
The worst-known tragedy at sea involved the death of 146 children, 142 women and 65 men in 2001 when their boat, known as SIEV X, sank inside the Australian aerial border-protection surveillance zone.
But there may be many more cases in which the fate of the boats and their passengers remains unknown.
Dr Leanne Weber from Monash University, a senior lecturer in migration policing says: "This is not the first time that boats carrying large numbers of asylum seekers have disappeared en route from Indonesia.
"In October 2009, a vessel carrying 105 Afghans failed to arrive in Australia. As far as I am aware, no trace of them has ever been found.
"Lives lost at sea in these circumstances are not only individual tragedies, they reflect the hidden costs of border controls."
Weber says in other parts of the world, such as Europe, those attempting to count the deaths of irregular migrants at sea have estimated that only one in three bodies is ever recovered.
Calls to the Customs and Border Protection Service about the missing boat have failed to shed any light on the disappearance. A statement from the service said it had not received any calls in relation to a missing boat. But the service said that even though a powerful over-the-horizon radar system had been installed on border protection boats, it was still "very difficult" to detect small, unregistered wooden vessels.
But a submission to a parliamentary inquiry now under way into the December shipwreck of SIEV 221, questions whether there has been a deliberate attempt to cast doubt on the ability of the radar system.
Tony Kevin, a former Australian diplomat who was a witness at the inquiry into the 2001 SIEV X tragedy and wrote a book about it, has suggested that maritime officials have tried to cast such doubts.
"It suggests to me that there are people still in the system, as there was before, that don't care about what happens to the boats unless they arrive," Kevin says. "If they don't arrive they don't have to worry about it. It is a totally immoral position. We have the technology to monitor these boats, but we are only going to use it selectively."
Jawad Hazara, an asylum seeker advocate and blogger who has been co-ordinating family efforts to find the missing people, has lost hope of finding them alive.
He has also been involved in the search for the 105 Afghans on the boat that went missing in 2009 - nothing has been heard from them either.
Hazara says as time passes and there is still no news, "theories that they have been arrested or shipwrecked, or whatever, fade away".
"Based on past experiences, I believe they sank in international waters.
"That is why there is no trace of them."
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Sunday May 8, 2011
Families of asylum seekers in tragic limbo
At his modest home in the western Sydney suburb of Blackett, Kareem Othman waits anxiously for news of the fate of his younger brother.
The 51-year-old last heard from a relative that Ahmed Hadadd Mohammed Othman was on a boat carrying 97 asylum seekers leaving Indonesia on November 13 last year. Kareem, himself a refugee from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, has not heard of his brother since.
"I warned him not to come by boat, that it was too dangerous," he said.
Ahmed, 43, was on a boat carrying asylum seekers from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran which left Indonesia on November 13 headed for Australia. It is feared lost.
The Sun-Herald revealed in December that the boat never arrived at Christmas Island. It is now 175 days since there has been word from those aboard.
Another vessel with the same number of passengers arrived at Christmas Island three weeks later, but Ahmed was not aboard. Subsequent checks with Indonesian agencies including the Red Cross's international tracing arm and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to find out if they had been arrested in Indonesia have been unsuccessful.
Mr Othman has called every detention centre in Australia looking for his brother. He has also sought, unsuccessfully, help from the federal government.
Not only do the authorities say they do not know anything about the missing boat, they are also not looking for it.
Customs and Border Protection Command said they had not received any calls about it.
Sydney lawyer George Newhouse hopes to raise the issue at the inquest into last year's tragic shipwreck off Christmas Island, which begins in Perth tomorrow.
Mr Newhouse is representing survivors and the next of kin of those who died in the shipwreck on December 15 last year. It is believed up to 50 asylum seekers perished. Some bodies were not recovered.
"I am greatly disheartened by the lack of interest the government has shown for people apparently lost at sea," said Mr Newhouse.
"If this was an Englishman on a yacht on a jaunt on the high seas, we would have sent out a frigate. But because they are people of different colour on this boat, the concern for them seems to be sadly lacking."
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said yesterday the Coalition's strong stand on asylum seeker policies was to prevent such tragedies.
"We have no idea how many boats go missing," he said.
"We want to stop it so people don't die on the boats coming here."
Sunday May 15, 2011
The suspected people smuggler accused of organising the boat that was shipwrecked off Christmas Island in December has been linked to another boat that disappeared with 97 asylum seekers on board, including at least four children.
Ali Heydarkhani, an Iranian-Australian also known as Ali Hamid, was brought to Australia last week from Indonesia to face charges over the drowning deaths of 50 men, women and children in the Christmas Island tragedy.
Relatives of asylum seekers on the boat that vanished after leaving Indonesia on November 13 have identified one of the smugglers as Ali Hamid.
Phil Glendenning of the Edmund Rice Centre, a social advocacy group, said the missing boat was ''another tragedy in the long line of tragedies''.
''Because the Christmas Island tragedy happened on the television, it pricked the conscience of the nation.
''I would like to see an urgent investigation into what has happened to this [missing] boat. We have seen too many people die.''
The Australian Federal Police is believed to be investigating the boat's disappearance, and the opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, has asked the government to raise the issue with the Indonesian government.
The Sun-Herald revealed in December that the boat had failed to arrive at Christmas Island.
Relatives of more than 30 Afghans, Iranians and Iraqis on the boat said their last contact with the people on board was by mobile phone as the boat was about to set sail.
Another boat with the same number of passengers on board arrived at Christmas Island three weeks later, on December 2, but Indonesian agencies - including the International Organisation for Migration and the Red Cross's international tracing arm - have failed to find any sign of the first boat.
Many of the families who spoke to The Sun-Herald provided the names of the people smugglers, their mobile phone numbers and the name of one of the hotels in Jakarta where the asylum seekers stayed before their departure.
Yehia Alkazemi has travelled from Melbourne to Jakarta to find out what happened to his brother Ayad, sister-in-law Faten, and their daughters Hude and Hebe.
Mr Glendenning said the debate about asylum seekers had been ''partisan and appalling''.
''It is a race to the bottom about who can be the toughest on the most vulnerable people on the planet.
''Politicians need to take a good look at themselves.
''This story [about the missing boat] was first published on Boxing Day, when the boat had been missing for 42 days,'' Mr Glendenning said.
''It's now 182 days and no one in Australia has reacted. That says a lot more about us than it does about them.''