Human lives Australia could have saved

Tony Kevin
4 September 2012
Eureka Street

Many of the 100 people who were drowned in the sea near Indonesia last week could have been saved.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) needed to have immediately launched a search and rescue (SAR) operation. This would have involved nearby Border Protection Command (BPC) sea and air surveillance resources (HMAS Maitland and the Customs Dash 8 aircraft stationed at Christmas Island), as soon as it received distress calls early last Wednesday morning.

This is another case of reprehensible search and rescue negligence by the AMSA/Customs and Border Protection system. A human emergency on this scale, clearly reported by two distress phone calls to AMSA, should never have been passed to the less capable Indonesian BASARNAS to handle.

It is an even more reprehensible Australian system failure, coming so soon after the Houston Panel had reminded the system of its international law obligations, under three international legal Conventions governing rescue at sea to which Australia is signatory, for search and rescue at sea in response to distress calls.

By bumping this emergency to BASARNAS, and then returning to border protection business as usual for a full wasted day, the Australian border security system left 100 people to die – as it had done previously on 15 December 2011 (with the foundered Barokah), and again on 19-21 June 2012.

As previously, under ‘the presumption of regularity’, the mainstream media narrative has exonerated the Australian border security system from any serious questioning. An uncritical Australian media has again failed to ask the obvious questions of Australian ministers and responsible agencies.

The timeline of Wednesday's sinking is already quite well established. Someone with a satellite mobile phone on the stricken boat made two distress calls to AMSA at 1.20 am (local time, 4.20 AEST) and 2.05 am (local time, 5.05 AEST) on Wednesday. The Minister for Home Affairs Jason Clare told media on 30 August that the boat had reported engine failure and that it was taking on water.

According to BASARNAS, AMSA informed BASARNAS and asked them to manage the search and rescue operation, just 11 minutes after the first distress call to AMSA, at 1.31 am (local time) Wednesday. At this time, according to BASARNAS, AMSA gave them the boat‘s exact location coordinates, eight nautical miles off the coast of Java.

The public record is inconsistent here. According to Mr Clare, ‘in the second phone call, the person provided RCC with the vessel's location, approximately eight nautical miles south-west of Java’. Yet the Indonesians say that AMSA informed BASARNAS of the location coordinates (6 degrees 46.44, 105 degrees 05.15) at 1.31 am, just minutes after the first phone call.

Probably quite soon after the distress calls (but we do not yet know just when), the drifting engine-less boat filled with water and foundered. According to one survivor, Muhammad Zahir, ‘the boat capsized but stayed afloat for about six hours’. He said he was among perhaps 100 clinging to the upper deck after the boat capsized.

The boat finally sank in international waters south of Sunda Strait. The first six survivors were picked up very early on Thursday morning by a container ship, APL Bahrein, about 40 NM from Java. The captain of Bahrein told media that these survivors told him they had been in the water since about 7am Wednesday, local time. This is our best indicator so far of the time when the capsized hull finally sank, fully five hours after the two distress calls to AMSA.

There would thus have been ample time following the two phone calls to AMSA for the Australian Customs Dash 8 surveillance aircraft to be tasked to fly from Christmas Island (around 200 NM away) to reach the last known location coordinates at first light (around 6 am) on Wednesday, locate the drifting boat or its capsized hull (both large conspicuous objects) from the air, and drop life rafts to survivors.

Also, HMAS Maitland, the closest BPC response vessel on station northwest of Christmas Island to intercept incoming asylum-seeker boats, could have reached the search area not long after the Dash 8, had it been ordered to steam there in response to the distress calls.

Instead, AMSA simply passed the search and rescue responsibility to its Indonesian counterpart. The BASARNAS response on 29 August was tardy, hasty and ineffective.

Meanwhile, for all of Wednesday, it was business as usual for the Department of Customs and Border Protection. BPC followed its normal border surveillance procedures. HMAS Maitland was busy intercepting a boat near Christmas Island.

On this day of nearby distress at sea, could not other interception arrangements have been made, freeing up HMAS Maitland to save lives? A Dash 8 made its usual daily ‘routine surveillance’ flight over the area north of Christmas Island. It started, Clare said, ‘at approximately 4pm Eastern Standard Time’.

Clare said the aircraft searched an area ‘where it was calculated that a vessel might be if it had continued to motor or drift towards Christmas Island’. But Customs would have known that the powerless vessel or its capsized hull was drifting westwards. The Dash 8 saw nothing, because it was surveilling the wrong area.

Clare says that ‘during this surveillance, AMSA obtained updated vessel location using commercially available satellite telephone positioning data’. No one has interrogated this important statement.

After Australia effectively took over the search and rescue operation from BASARNAS on Wednesday night, 54 survivors were located through Thursday over an area about 40 NM from Indonesia – see published AMSA map.’Incident Response 2012/5710 Refugee Vessel’. Ships were now searching an area where they had been advised to look, from Australian drift analysis and satellite telephone positioning data – a day too late.

Not all the criticism should be directed at BASARNAS for its ineffective search and rescue effort on Wednesday. It should also, and more so, be directed at AMSA and the Department of Customs and Border Protection for improperly and negligently passing the SAR responsibility to an agency they knew does not have the technical resources or organisation to handle it well.

They would not have done this had the distress calls been made to AMSA from an Australian-flagged vessel carrying Australians.

The Rescue At Sea Convention, Safety of Life at Sea Convention, and UN Convention on Law of the Sea all say (in different words) that every State Party to these Conventions has a duty to render assistance, when it receives information that persons are in distress at sea.

Every State Party must require the master of a vessel flying its flag to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost, and to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress if informed of their need of assistance. State Parties shall ensure that assistance is provided to any person in distress at sea, regardless of the nationality or status of a person or the circumstances in which the person is found. Note that this duty applies anywhere at sea: the rescue obligation is not limited to a State party's own search and rescue region.

The boat or its capsized hull would have rapidly drifted westwards, out of the Indonesian 12 NM territorial sea zone and into international waters south of Sunda Strait, during the five hours following the distress calls. AMSA and Australian signals intelligence would have certainly read exact coordinates for the two calls. They would also have been able to track the hull’s exact whereabouts through the ensuing five hours if the satellite mobile phone from which the distress calls were sent had been left switched on. There are many questions here.

Indonesia has none of these sophisticated resources and technologies which BPC uses – when it wants to – to locate and intercept incoming unauthorised boats.

The 100-odd survivors clinging to the boat’s capsized hull were properly entitled under Australia’s international legal obligations to a fully resourced Australian search and rescue response to their two distress calls to AMSA.

Because AMSA and Customs botched Australia’s search and rescue responsibilities, up to 100 people died needlessly. To this point in time, the Australian people seem blissfully unaware of these facts. It is time our media started asking real questions.


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