Lives lost after rescue plea denied

July 8, 2012
Natalie O'Brien
Canberra Times

The boat bound for Australia, which sank off East Java killing hundreds of Iranian and Afghan refugees.
Wrecked the boat was towed to East Javan waters. Photo: Jumai Evan Junardi

Australian authorities refused to co-ordinate the search and rescue for the asylum seeker boat known as the Barokah, which sank in December killing about 200 people, despite pleas for help from Indonesia.

Documents obtained by The Sun-Herald under freedom of information reveal that Australia's maritime authority told Indonesia's search and rescue agency that it was up to them to lead the mission into the maritime tragedy, which resulted in the biggest loss of life since the SIEV X in 2001 in which 353 people drowned.

There is growing debate about the responsibility to respond to safety of life at sea emergencies under international conventions after a boat in distress on its way to Australia on June 19 was left to drift for days before it capsized killing 90 people.

53 dead immigrants from the Middle East were victims of the Barokah motorboat that sank in the Prigi sea, Trenggalek, East Java buried in a grave Putat Jaya general cemetery. Surabaya, Indonesia.
Middle Eastern victims of the Barokah are buried in Putat Jaya cemetery. Photo: Robertus Pudyanto

A spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said the decision about the Barokah was made because the boat was inside the Indonesian search and rescue zone. She said the agency offered support for planning and drift modelling.

The boat broke up in high seas about 40 nautical miles south of Prigi Beach in Java. Most of the survivors, many of whom spent hours in the water clinging to debris, were rescued by passing fishermen.

The documents, obtained from Customs and Border Protection, also reveal that customs officials provided a different account of the story to Senate estimates briefings in February. Customs did not reveal AMSA's refusal to coordinate the rescue, instead saying that Indonesia's search and rescue agency, Basarnas, had ''initially declined an offer from AMSA to assist with the search and rescue effort''.

A spokeswoman for the maritime authority denied there had been any direction from government about its response to distressed asylum seeker boats, maintaining its policy is consistent and in accordance with the relevant conventions and international practices.

''The operational circumstances may vary from incident to incident and it is these operational factors that shape the actual response,'' a spokeswoman said.

A spokesman for the Federal Minister for Transport, Anthony Albanese, said where an incident occurs in another country's search and rescue region, AMSA would normally act to provide assistance rather than lead the response itself.

''The requirement for coordination of effort becomes more compelling with incidents close to the Indonesian coast than it is further offshore towards Christmas Island,'' he said.

The head of Basarnas, Vice Marshal Daryatmo, recently told The Sydney Morning Herald that the agency was hopelessly under-equipped for ocean rescue and needed help from Australia if it was to save asylum seekers from dying at sea.

At the time of the December 17 sinking of the Barokah, little information was revealed about what Australia knew about the boat and the Minister for Home Affairs, Jason Clare, blamed the tragedy on people smugglers. But the freedom of information documents show that Australia's People Smuggling Intelligence Analysis Team knew a boat was due to leave from that location and an informant told the Australian Federal Police about the sinking. That information did not filter through Customs to Basarnas until nearly two hours later. A further hour and 45 minutes later Basarnas, which already knew about the sinking, unsuccessfully asked AMSA to coordinate.

As the search for survivors continued two days later, the Indonesians again asked for help. This time, the documents reveal, AMSA asked Defence and Customs to assist and an Orion plane was sent out along with an Armidale Class Patrol Boat, and Customs DASH 8 aircraft. Mr Clare referred to the incident this week as an example of ''where we received a call saying that there is a vessel sinking, a vessel in distress working with Indonesia, we work as hard as we possibly can to save lives ''

He foreshadowed a shake-up of the policy, saying that ''meetings will take place over the next few weeks between AMSA and Basarnas on how they can work more closely together''.

The Barokah case echoes the sinking of the boat on June 19, when AMSA left Basarnas in charge of the search and rescue operation of the leaking asylum seeker vessel.



See also:

Matt Brown, 7.30, 17 January 2012 (transcript)

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