Leaving the boats to Indonesia will lead to more deaths

September 7, 2012
Richard Ackland
Sydney Morning Herald

Repeatedly we are told by politicians that the offshore processing of asylum seekers will save them from drowning. The Pacific Solution Mark Two will help protect people from the perils of the deep. It's a noble mission.

There can be little doubt that loss of asylum seekers' lives at sea plays into the hands of politicians intent on demonising and point-scoring. It's as though we need a steady flow of stricken hulks to keep the political edge nice and sharp.

The flip side is this: do the authorities really want to find more asylum seekers clinging to sinking hulks somewhere between Indonesia and Australia? To some extent the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Border Protection Command have limited options.

Take the loss of 100 asylum seeker lives at sea a week ago. The distress signal went to Australia's Rescue Co-ordination Centre at 4.20am and again at 5.05am on Wednesday last week. The position of the vessel was given, eight nautical miles off south-west Java. It was taking on water and the engine had failed. There were 150 people on board, including women and children.

The Australians alerted merchant vessels in the area and the Indonesian rescue authority, Basarnas. Even though that is a forlorn gesture, they are required to do so because the boat was still in Indonesian waters. Forlorn because Basarnas has a dismal record of rescues at sea. In fact, in the past four years it has rescued only one distressed asylum boat, and that was with the help of the ABC, which knew where it was. Only if Basarnas says it needs assistance in the search-and-rescue operation can Australia then send support or assume a co-ordinating role.

As it was, the Indonesian authorities went home after two hours of searching. Australian operations only commenced 12 hours after the first distress message went out.

This week the Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, had talks with his Indonesian counterpart. He announced this had resulted in ''a comprehensive package that will translate into saving lives''. Australia will provide an additional $4.6 million ''to enhance links'' between the two nations' rescue operations. But as to translating into saving lives, you shouldn't hold your breath.

What would be more effective is a bilateral treaty between us and the Indonesians allowing Australian search-and-rescue aircraft and navy ships to enter their waters to help drag drowning people out of the sea.

Yet there is a yawning indifference on the part of both countries. Indonesia doesn't want our military vessels nosing into its seas because it fears we will send asylum seekers back, and we seem content to let them apply their limited resources and capabilities on not finding or rescuing distressed boats laden with Afghans, Tamils and others heading our way.

Australia, on the other hand, has quite impressive capability and resources at its disposal. As former ambassador Tony Kevin argues in his book Reluctant Rescuers, there is on-the-ground intelligence about when boats are leaving the Indonesian coast and satellite tracking, so we know where boats are heading. We have a well-resourced Maritime Safety Authority and a Border Protection Command.

In June there was another tragedy at sea in which 93 Afghan asylum seekers drowned. The Age's Joel Magarey got hold of an incident chronology compiled by the Indonesians, which reveals bungling to a lethal degree. Basarnas says that in this instance it did request Australian help as the boat was close to Christmas Island, which oddly enough is inside Indonesia's search-and-rescue zone. The Australian authorities were content to leave responsibility for the boat to the Indonesians.

The consequences may have put Australia in breach of its international obligation to render assistance to distressed vessels. As Indonesia correspondent Michael Bachelard wrote: ''Perhaps the navy and the public servants involved were willing the boat to be someone else's problem.''

There was the sinking of the Barokah in December last year, with the loss of more than 160 lives. It foundered about 40 nautical miles off south-east Java. The line then from the Minister for Justice, Jason Clare, was that this was all the fault of ''scum'' people smugglers. Only later was it admitted that Australia did receive a distress call whereupon we asked the Indonesians to handle it. They said no. And the upshot was that neither Australia nor Indonesia participated in a search-and-rescue mission.

In the past three years, seven asylum seeker boats have gone down, with the loss of 400 lives. ''Bumping'' distress signals to the Indonesians rarely, if ever, results in lives being saved. Maybe that suits a dark political purpose back here. People smugglers can continue to be blamed, while the loss of life fires up the moral justification of offshore processing. At the same time, both the government and the opposition point to the loss of life as a deterrence to prevent desperate people getting on a boat. All rather circular and deeply cynical.


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