Tuesday, 26 September 2017  
How many of the 1500 asylum seeker lives lost at sea since 2001 could have been saved?
Zahra (6), Fatima (7) and Eman (9) - the daughters of Sondos Ismail and Ahmed Alzalimi -  three of the 146 children who lost their lives when the vessel that has become known as SIEVX foundered in international waters en route to Christmas Island on 19 October 2001.
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MEDIA

GOVERNMENT
Australia's Shameful Response to a Boat in Distress

by Marg Hutton
27 June 2012

It is a terrible irony that in the week of the tenth anniversary of the creation of this website, questions are being raised concerning Australian responsibility for the mass drowning of scores of asylum seekers that occurred en route to Christmas Island last week.

Have our policies in respect of asylum seeker vessels reverted to the 'Don't get suckered into a SOLAS' imperative of the Howard era? (CMI 250, 300)

Thanks to the work of the ABC's Matt Brown, it is possible to read online key faxes that our Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) sent to BASARNAS last week prior to the sinking. A transcript of Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare's Press Conference last Friday also provides more information about Australia's tardy response to this vessel in distress.

These documents show that Australia first learnt that a boat was 'experiencing difficulties' from phone calls direct from the boat to the RCC around 10pm AEST on Tuesday evening. A few hours later in the early hours of Wednesday morning, there was another call requesting assistance 'as the vessel had suffered hull damage... and was taking on water'. It reportedly had 204 passengers on board and was 38 NM south of Indonesia heading for Christmas Island. RCC responded by advising the vessel to return to Indonesia, faxed the Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency BASARNAS concerning a 'vessel in distress' requesting it take coordination of the incident. It is still not clear if BASARNAS ever acceded to this request.

The stricken vessel continued to limp its way slowly toward Christmas Island at two or three knots per hour. It is claimed that a routine Border Protection surveillance flight over the boat on Wednesay afternoon indicated 'no visual sign of distress.'

We don't know how many calls in total were made from this stricken vessel to the RCC throughout its ill-fated journey - we do know that the vessel repeatedly called for help throughout Wednesday and that the 'last call' appears to have taken place around 8.20pm AEST that evening. Jason Clare claimed that 'on Wednesday evening, Border Protection Command vessels at Christmas Island were prepared to respond if assistance was requested'. Yet inexplicably there was no response by Australian vessels to these calls for help for nearly another seventeen hours.

At 7.30am AEST on Thursday morning RCC received further information from an undisclosed source that the vessel was 'approximately 110nm NNW of Christmas Island, may be taking on water with persons onboard fearful for their safety.' This new information was credible enough that it roused the RCC to act, but shamefully not for another five hours. [1]

At 12.41pm AEST RCC again contacted BASARNAS, presumably in another attempt to bat away responsibility for the incident to the Indonesians. About twenty minutes after this a BPC vessel departed Christmas Island 'tasked to locate' the vessel. Two hours later the capsized boat was detected about 110nm NW from Christmas Island. AMSA sent out a broadcast to shipping requesting assistance and also offered assistance to BASARNAS - which still had no assets responding to the incident. It was not until 10.23pm AEST, after many of the passengers aboard the sunken vessel had been rescued, that RCC Australia contacted BASARNAS and formally accepted coordination of the Search and Rescue.

This is not the first time under Labor that there have been questions raised about Australia's reluctance to go to the rescue of asylum seeker vessels in distress. Natalie O'Brien uncovered the story of the lost boat from 2009 that went missing with over 100 people on board; it took four hours for information about this boat to be passed to AMSA. We will never know if lives could have been saved in 2009 if information about this vessel had been received in a more timely manner. However, in regard to the latest sinking - there is no doubt that if RCC had responded earlier to the distress calls from this vessel 90 lives could have been saved.

In 2001 John Howard directed that passengers on an asylum seeker vessel were not to be rescued until their boat had sunk. We saw this dangerous and heartless policy in play in the case of the 'Children Overboard' boat, SIEV 4. This vessel had sent up a 'Mayday' flag calling for help. It was subsequently taken under tow by the Adelaide and towed for 24 hours till it foundered. It was not until all 223 people were fighting for their lives in the water that the Adelaide was permitted to go to the rescue.

The way Australia responded to the boat that eventually capsized on 21 June appears to be significantly different to how we have responded to other SIEVs in distress in recent times.

On 22 November last year, for example, former Minister for Home Affairs, Brendan O'Connor issued a media release saying that a vessel carrying 116 passengers had been detected the previous evening after a search coordinated by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) following a phone call to police. Crucially O'Connor noted:

'After locating and making contact with the vessel, AMSA determined that while it was not in any immediate danger, the number of people on board and the small amount of safety equipment was of concern and made arrangements for HMAS Maitland to monitor the vessel overnight en route to Christmas Island.'

If AMSA had acted with this level of concern last Wednesday, 90 people would still be alive...

 


[1] Editor's note: 8 June 2013 - This paragraph is incorrect. The Chronology in this BPC FOI document gives the following information (page 58):
'21 Jun 12 - At 11.07am AEST BPC received additional information that raised concerns about the safety of the vessel. The information was passed to RCC Australia at 11.37am AEST who then passed the information to BASARNAS.'
So it appears that another Australian agency (ie not BPC or AMSA) received information about the vessel at 7.30am which was passed to BPC three and a half hours later and then a half hour after that it was passed to RCC Australia (ie AMSA
).

 

See also:

Incomplete set of 5 faxes from RCC to BASARNAS ~ copied from ABC website (4 MB)

Safety our first, most urgent role ~ Opinion, CT, 25 June 2012

Michael Bachelard, Australian asylum boat rescue warning confusing: Indonesia, SMH, 22 June 2012

Michael Bachelard, Decency all at sea..., Age, 24 June 2012

Michael Bachelard, Indonesia ill-equipped to rescue asylum boats, SMH, 27 June 2012

Matt Brown, Questions raised about Indonesia's rescue coordination, World Today, 22 June 2012

Jason Clare, Press Conference, 22 June 2012

Tony Kevin, Reluctant Rescuers, 2012

Tony Kevin on Fran Kelly's Breakfast Hour ~ 25 June 2012 (podcast)

William Maley, Need for mature asylum policy, CT, 27 June 2012

Senator Milne, Asylum Seeker speech, (Hansard) 25 June 2012

Natalie O'Brien, Shackled Indonesia Could not save boat, SMH, 24 June 2012

Ian Rintoul Asylum seeker tragedy could have been averted, 22 June 2012

 

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