Asylum-seekers accused of 'using navy like NRMA'
Ben Packham and Lauren Wilson
July 05, 2012 8:06AM
PEOPLE-SMUGGLERS are treating the Australian navy "like the NRMA", officials fear, as an asylum boat makes its way towards Christmas Island under escort after a mayday call made closer to Indonesia than the Australian outpost.
Immigration authorities say smugglers are becoming increasingly audacious, telling asylum boat captains to phone for help hours after leaving Indonesian ports.
The latest boat was just 50 nautical miles south of Java - still more than 150 nautical miles from Christmas Island - when a satellite call was made from the vessel directly to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
The two vessels that capsized last month, with the loss of at least 94 lives, phoned for help about 100 nautical miles from Christmas Island.
"It's scandalous. It's like calling the NRMA," said one senior official, referring to the NSW roadside assistance service.
"They may as well have called us from the marina."
Asylum boats are routinely sabotaged, but the growing number of distress calls so far from Australian territorial waters is a disturbing new development.
Overnight, 162 passengers from the latest boat were transferred to HMAS Leeuwin and HMAS Wollongong and were being taken to Christmas island. Three of the asylum-seekers were receiving medical treatment aboard HMAS Leeuwin.
Independent MP Rob Oakeshott, whose compromise bill to revive Labor's Malaysia Solution and enable the reopening of a processing centre on Nauru was blocked in the Senate last week, lashed out at the boldness of people-smugglers.
"With a mobile phone and a few dollars, it's never been easier or cheaper to move across borders in the Asia-Pacific region," he told The Australian.
"Combine this with a policy deadlock in the Australian Senate, and we are going to continue to see trafficking, smuggling and loss of life at sea. This issue is not going away and will only get worse while ever the Senate fails to find a compromise."
Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare conceded that people-smugglers were telling their clients to "ring Australia" if they ran into problems on the seas between Indonesia and Australia.
"I think people-smugglers put people to sea after they take their money and they tell people to ring Australia and expect that vessels will come to meet them," he said.
"Sometimes it is a false alarm, sometimes it is the real thing. We treat every single phone call seriously, because if you don't, people die."
But Mr Clare's spokeswoman said last night the advice from Border Protection Command was that there was no evidence to suggest sabotage had played a role in the capsize of either of the boats that foundered last month. "Any allegations relating to those incidents are a matter for the investigation by the (Australian Federal Police) and WA Coroner," the spokeswoman said.
The third search and rescue mission in as many weeks comes a day after Julia Gillard and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met in Darwin to discuss ways to enhance the co-operation of Indonesian and Australian rescue agencies.
A spokesman for the Indonesian search and rescue agency BASARNAS said the asylum-seeker vessel had defied calls to turn around and was being escorted to Christmas Island.
"They said that they don't want to go back to Indonesian waters and, as for now, they're on their way to Christmas Island guarded by HMAS Wollongong," he said.
"It's not easy to help them. The weather and the waves are not friendly at all at the moment. The wave height at times is about 3m."
After the parliament failed last week to reach a compromise and pass legislation that would have revived offshore processing, the Prime Minister appointed former defence chief Angus Houston to head an expert panel to advise the government on the best way through the political impasse. Air Chief Marshal Houston is expected to report to Ms Gillard before parliament returns from a six-week winter recess on August 14.
Tony Abbott yesterday called on Ms Gillard to "get the processing centre started" in both Nauru and Papua New Guinea and pass any legislation that was needed as soon as parliament resumed.
Refugee advocate Marion Le said she feared people-smugglers were deliberately overcrowding boats and making early distress calls in anticipation of a change in government policy.
"For the smugglers themselves, this is about money," she said. "It gets to me that these people know exactly who to call in Australia."
The refugee lawyer said she believed people-smugglers should be held financially responsible for tying up Australia's strategic defence resources.
Senior Defence sources have expressed concern about the psychological toll that the recent rescues have taken on the young men and women crewing the navy ships that have led the rescue efforts, including HMAS Wollongong - which has gone to the rescue of two asylum-seeker vessels in the past month.
In the past three weeks, 12 merchant ships have also assisted with the rescue efforts, including the seven vessels that pulled survivors and bodies from the water during last month's mass drowning of about 90 people.
Darwin-based master mariners yesterday warned of dangers posed by asylum-seeker vessels raising false distress calls, saying the issue was being discussed among Top End seafarers. "We hope this is not going to be their modus operandi - boats get within range and then they (asylum-seekers) put the call out," one said.
Additional reporting: Mark Schliebs, Mark Dodd, Cameron Stewart, AAP<\i>
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