Art Gallery of South Australia


In May 2013, 28 lifejackets washed up on the shore of the Cocos Islands. The people who wore them were seeking safety: safety from the perils of the sea; safety from persecution; rescue from torture or death.

But the life-jackets did not save them.

The sea claimed them when their persecutors could not.

People flee persecution: that fact is as old as human cruelty.  Each year, a modest number of people fleeing persecution arrive in Australia by boat, seeking safety.  Typically they travel by air from Afghanistan, Iran or Iraq through Malaysia and then to Indonesia.  They do not pass through countries which offer protection from persecution: the countries between here and there have not signed the Refugees Convention. 

Once an asylum seeker reaches Indonesia, they face an uncertain future.  They can go to the UN High Commission for Refugees and be assessed as refugees.  That does not get them protection, since Indonesia is not a party to the Convention.  If the Indonesian authorities find them, they will be jailed.  They cannot work or send their children to school.

They can wait for another country to offer them resettlement: that would be a durable solution, but they may have to wait anything from 20 to 40 years.

Or they can pay a people smuggler and get on a boat.

Australia prides itself for its open heart and its vast open spaces.  But we show ourselves to be cold and indifferent to boat people. We save only those we choose.  Our charity is as cold as marble: reserved for those who know to flee the “proper way”, the way we choose for them. 

Seton has carved 28 lifejackets in Australian marble. In memoriam.  Life jackets in marble cannot save anyone. Life jackets in marble are a cruel deception: an empty promise, when human fate turns on the fall of a leaf.

Run for your life; take a life jacket.  If you ran the right way, you will be saved.  If you chose the wrong way, your life jacket is marble.  Sorry: but you had to die to save us from our fears.  This is how our politicians think.  They murmur false concern for the drowned, but they are quietly relieved that refugees drown instead of arriving.  For isn’t it our great boast that: “We decided who came to our country...and it was not the ones who braved the ocean, it was not the ones who needed life jackets, it was not the ones who fled our enemies... it was the ones who did not come at all.”

But some of us see the human beings who might have worn the life jackets to safety.  Our contempt is reserved for the politicians who debase this country’s goodness, and wear human misery like a badge of honour.

No-one will produce a marble image of our current politicians who vilify refugees and mistreat them; and do it to persuade others not to come and ask for our help.  Their memory will crumble into dust.  They will be condemned by history and then ...  they will be forgotten. 

But Alex Seton’s silent, cool memorial to the drowned will endure and remind us: each life jacket was the last hope of a doomed human being.