Fatal sea voyage not considered in 'distress'

Christiana Jones
West Australian
June 26, 2013, 2:02 pm

An inquest into a fatal sea voyage that killed up to 102 asylum seekers has been told that of the 300 requests for help from refugee boats only about eight were genuine.

The information came as an official from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority described why the Rescue Co-ordination Centre of Australia had not considered the ill-fated SIEV was in "distress" when a passenger claimed the ship was "broken" and taking on water.

AMSA manager of search and rescue operations Allan Lloyd today testified about the organisation's actions in the two days between when it first received a call from a passenger on the crowded, timber ship and when it issued an urgency broadcast on June 21 after the vessel was seen capsized in Indonesian waters.

Indonesia's rescue agency, Basarnas, had not accepted a co-ordination role regarding the ship until 11 hours after the passenger's initial calls, with AMSA today asked about why the RCCA had not launched a search and rescue in the interim or considered the vessel in "distress".

Australia had later issued a broadcast at a time after Basarnas had taken control, sparked by a sighting by an Australian aircraft of people clinging to an upturned hull. Survivors were being plucked out of the water within an hour of the broadcast after merchant ships hurried to the scene.

Today, Mr Lloyd said officers had been continually assessing the situation of the vessel as calls were being received by passengers on the wooden shipping boat carrying 212 men from Jakarta.

In the calls, passengers asked for help, saying there were "no life jackets" and the ship was taking water.

But Mr Lloyd said that unfortunately a "refugee pattern" existed in which non-genuine requests for help were made, meaning the agency had to verify what was being said to them.

The inquest was told that diverting merchant ships to a bogus distress call was costly.

Mr Lloyd said the RCCA had received a request for help but "the tone that it was delivered in and the way it was delivered was not in the form of a distress process".

He described the tome of the passengers' calls as "calm, discussive" and said that "unfortunately refugee vessels seem to follow a script" with misleading information.

Mr Lloyd said that of 460 refugee boats, 75 per cent requested help and of that 300 only about eight had been genuine requests.

It was later ascertained that the ship did have life jackets, although too few and of "substandard" quality. The inquest also was told that the ship was understood to have still been heading south after the phone calls for help and even after they were advised to turn back to Indonesian mainland.

Mr Lloyd agreed under questioning that there had been no impediment to the RCCA in offering help and issuing a broadcast earlier, even while Indonesia co-ordinated the response, if they considered the ship in distress.

Barnasas was criticised in counsel assisting Coroner Alastair Hope, Marco Tedeschi's opening address for its handling of the situation, with the inquest told there was no evidence that Indonesia had sent any vessels to the ship.

Mr Lloyd today said AMSA did not make inquiries about another country's response once they were co-ordinating the situation but would have responded if asked for help. The inquest continues.


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