More asylum seeker deaths, more unanswered questions

Tony Kevin
10 June 2013
Eureka Street

Even after the Minister for Home Affairs Jason Clare's well-crafted media conference on Sunday morning, many important questions remain about the latest asylum-seeker boat sinking tragedy.

A reported capsized hull was found semi-submerged 65 nautical miles northwest of Christmas Island at 070519 UTC (i.e. 3.19pm AEST on Friday 7 June). This find triggered a Mayday (top-level distress) message to all shipping from AMSA Rescue Coordination Centre 11 and a half hours later. Independent SIEV X researcher Marg Hutton found and published this Mayday message early on Saturday.

Clare announced the finding thus: 'About 3pm AEST, on Friday, the P3 [RAAF long-range surveillance aircraft] sighted a submerged hull in the water 65 NM NW of Christmas Island.' Clare said the capsized hull was not seen again, but that some debris was later sighted from the air at around 5pm.

Later, 13 dead bodies were sighted from the air they had not been recovered as the focus was still on searching for survivors from the boat, estimated to be carrying 55 to 60 asylum-seekers, including women and children.

The Mayday message reported the position at which debris (or the capsized semi-submerged hull the Mayday seems to have conflated these two sightings, about two hours apart) as 09-57 S 104-34 E (9 degrees 57 minutes south, 104 degrees 34 minutes east). This is actually east-north-east of Christmas Island, several nautical miles south of the boundary between the Indonesian and Australian maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) regions.

This fact makes the search and rescue response to this incident fully an Australian responsibility. Both Clare and Admiral David Johnston, Commander of Border Protection Command (BPC) made clear at the press conference that BASARNAS (the Indonesian search and rescue authority) is not involved in this search and rescue operation.

Clare volunteered at the conference that there had been a previous Australian sighting of this vessel at a position 27 NM north-west of Christmas Island, on Wednesday 5 June. This position is just 3 NM outside the contiguous zone in which BPC normally intercepts incoming asylum-seeker boats.

He said the boat was reported 'stationary but did not appear in distress'. He said the people on board had waved but made no distress signal. He said subsequent searches of the same area on Thursday by HMAS Warramunga and BPC aircraft had not spotted the boat again.

Clare did not reveal what Hutton had found and reported on Friday a pan-pan notice sent by AMSA RCC to all shipping at midnight UTC on Thursday night (10am AEST on Friday 7 June), reporting the time and location of the Wednesday sighting as a boat 'reported overdue on a voyage from Indonesia to Christmas Island, last known position 10-04 S 105-21 E at 050743 UTC' (5.43pm AEST on Wednesday 5 June).

This was the same boat that Clare said had been sighted at this position, not appearing to be in distress.

A pan-pan notice signifies that there is a 'state of urgency' on board a boat. This is distinct from a Mayday call, which means that there is 'imminent danger to life'. The pan-pan 'informs potential rescuers (including emergency services and other craft in the area) that a safety problem exists, whereas Mayday will call upon them to drop all other activities and immediately initiate a rescue attempt'.

The fact that the boat was seen as stationary on Wednesday should have alerted BPC to the risk of likely engine failure, causing drift away from Christmas Island if the boat was not quickly located and intercepted and assisted by a BPC surface vessel.

Johnson told the press conference that the fact that the capsized hull was later seen on Friday 44 NM away to the west, around 48 hours after the first sighting of the boat, was 'feasible: the westerly movement (of a drifting boat) was consistent with the drift pattern' of the prevailing ocean current of 1 NM/hour westwards. BPC knew this.

In keeping with its interception obligations, BPC should have been quick to send a boat out from Christmas Island, a short 27 NM away, to check on the status of the reported stationary boat, then just outside the contiguous zone in which BPC normally intercepts incoming boats. There were still enough daylight hours to send a boat out on Wednesday afternoon. But if they knew the boat was drifting away, there was no urgency about intercepting the boat in terms of BPC's border protection obligations.

It was not until Friday that BPC, having failed to find the boat on Thursday, asked AMSA to issue a pan-pan notice to shipping. The pan-pan notice went out 40 hours after the sighting.

Had BPC reacted more quickly on Wednesday afternoon, those 55 or 60 drowned people would probably still be alive. Instead, their boat drifted helplessly westwards, away from Christmas Island, and at some time in the next 46 hours we may never know when capsized and began to sink.

Clare said there will be the usual internal Customs enquiry and that the WA Coroner who is investigating a deaths-at-sea incident on 21 June 2012 may choose to investigate this incident. It would seem legally that he should, since bodies will probably be recovered in the Australian SAR zone.

On its face, it is another case of failure by BPC to take prompt and diligent interception and/or rescue action resulting in avoidable deaths at sea. There should be no excuse for this apparent lapse in professional standards of interception and rescue at sea by Australian border protection authorities. They know these boats are unsafe. Why do they not strive to save lives when they can?


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