Hacking the black box on the boats that never make it here

Tony Kevin
20 October 2011

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the sinking of SIEV X.

I marked it with two months of research into "the four SIEV Xs". Six hundred and five people were certainly or probably drowned on four sunken or lost SIEVs, starting with SIEV X in 2001 (353 deaths) and finishing with 50 deaths in the SIEV 221 shipwreck at Christmas Island on December 15 last year. On October 3, 2009, a boat carrying 105 Hazara Afghans went missing between Indonesia and Christmas Island. And on November 13 last year, a boat carrying 97 people left Indonesia from Iraq and Iran, and was not heard of again. Media investigations of many pre-embarkation and at-sea phone messages to relatives in Australia make both boat losses equally probable. Customs admits now to having some knowledge of the 2009 boat, but none of the 2010 boat.

I call these boats "the four SIEV Xs" because they have one important feature in common: all were undetected by the Australian border protection authority -- in 2001 called Coastwatch, now Border Protection Command (BPC). The 605 deaths on these four boats make up the bulk of all confirmed and probable deaths on SIEVs between 1998 and 2011, recently tabulated by Marg Hutton as 663-673 persons.

Compare this with parliamentary researchers Phillips and Spinks’ published annual data for SIEV arrivals in Australian territories over the same 13 years: 517 boats carrying 24,184 people.

Do the maths: 99% of boats and over 97% of passengers were safely detected and intercepted by BPC. This praiseworthy result testifies to the efficiency and dedication of BPC surveillance air crews and ship crews.

The reason four boats were lost or sunk with 605 drownings can, I believe, be found in the present opaque system of a layered separation between the intelligence collection and analysis process, and BPC’s ocean surveillance, detection and interception process. Intelligence collected from various sources (e.g. police intelligence of departures from Indonesia, radio and phone signals intercepted from boats, broad-area long-distance JORN radar) is assessed inside Customs in a top-secret black box called the People Smuggling Intelligence Analysis Team (PSIAT).

See Customs' submission to joint select committee into Christmas Island tragedy, submission No.8, paras 61-64, PDF file, SIEV 221 Internal Review.

PSIAT produces a top-secret daily intelligence product for a top-level readership, and a separate daily product for BPC, which is effectively BPC’s daily surveillance, detection and interception worksheet. If PSIAT has not listed an incoming boat in that latter daily worksheet, BPC won’t know anything about it. We can thus accept BPC officials’ sworn testimony in recent inquiries that they knew nothing about SIEV 221 until it arrived at Christmas Island: presumably it was not on their daily product from PSIAT.

The question is, what did PSIAT (or its predecessor in 2001) know about these four boats? Why did the intelligence process get its workface product tragically wrong in these four cases over 10 years, when it seems to have got it safely right for 517 boats? (And presumably using similar data sources and methods of analysis in all cases.)

As long as PSIAT processes and data stay in their present top-secret black box, we won’t know. But these are not national security secrets. This is about proper accountability for 605 civilian deaths in transit to Australia on suspected irregular entry vessels, whose detection and interception should be at all times carried out in ways consistent with international maritime law on safety of life at sea.

Australians have a right to know the true causes of these very occasional tragic failures, in our usually very safe national intelligence-based detection and interception system. This regardless of our varying political views on how to treat people who come to Australia in SIEV boats seeking our protection. This is about standards of truth in governance.

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