Did Australian authorities do enough to try to save asylum seeker lives?

Tony Kevin
April 15, 2013
Eureka Street

We now have another distressing and perplexing case of possible Australian failure to use intelligence information to save lives in one or two (it is still not clear) asylum seeker boat sinkings in the southern Sunda Strait, on 10 and possibly 12 April. The boat (or boats) was on route to Christmas Island, sent by a people smuggler.

I have studied and cross-referenced 12 available Australian media reports AAP, ABC, SMH/Age, News Limited, and SBS, dated between 12 and 14 April. These are the main unresolved questions at time of writing this essay. More clarifications may, or may not, emerge in coming days.

The case raises similar questions to three of the fatal incidents I analysed in my 2012 book Reluctant Rescuers two boats that went missing in the Sunda Strait area in 2009 and 2010, and the Barokah which foundered off south-eastern Java in December 2011 and two later boats that sank in June 2012.

There are two conflicting versions of when the boat sank last week.

First, AMSA briefed media on Friday 12 April that it had informed its Indonesian counterpart BASARNAS that 'a people-smuggling vessel may have sunk in or near the Sunda Strait around 3am AEST today' (Friday 12 April i.e., midnight 11/12 April, local time), and that 'some passengers may have been rescued by a fishing vessel'.

Michael Bachelard (in Jakarta) and Bianca Hall reported in Fairfax on 13 April that an AMSA spokeswoman said 'yesterday' (12 April) that 'they had been informed by another agency, which she would not name, that the boat needed assistance'. AMSA says it told BASARNAS all it knew. But BASARNAS complains that, because AMSA did not give it any search coordinates, BASARNAS could not undertake any search. It did not do so.

Second, there is a separate, quite well-based, stream of media reporting from 12 April on, of a reported sinking in the same area at around 11am local time on Wednesday 10 April a full 37 hours before the event reported by AMSA. This reporting stems from a 29-year old survivor Mr Hashimi who appears to have been directly interviewed on 12 April in Bogor, where he was recovering, by Bachelard for Fairfax and by Karlis Salna for AAP.

Hashimi told them the boat had travelled for nine hours before it sank. He said there had been 72 Hazara Afghans on board, of whom 14 survived for 24 hours in the water by linking hands, before being picked up by local fishermen from Sukabumi, a town in West Java. Six people were known to have died, and 52 were missing.

So did one or two boats sink in the southern Sunda Strait last week? AMSA has issued no clarification or detail on its reported possible sinking around midnight on Thursday night, and no survivors have come forward to confirm this time frame. On the other hand, the Hashimi story seems factually detailed and credible enough.

Could AMSA have given BASARNAS 'misleading information', as Bachelard and Hall report a BASARNAS official Mr Firdauzi alleged on Saturday? Could AMSA have itself received incorrect information as to the time of sinking from the agency which it declined to name? I assume this could have been an Australian human intelligence (AFP or ASIS) or signals intelligence (ADF) collection agency, or possibly the PSIAT, the People Smuggling Intelligence Analysis Team located in the Department of Customs and Border Protection.

Underlying this is a second big question: did the unnamed agency that briefed AMSA on the event itself know the coordinates of where the boat might have been when it got into trouble, or was last tracked? I know from my book research that it is difficult to extract from Australian officials public admissions that they are usually able through intelligence means to know with some accuracy where boats are located at sea during their unauthorised voyages to Christmas Island. Yet it is clear from the interception history that they have access to such information.

If the unnamed agency did have these coordinates, and yet did not pass them to AMSA to pass to BASARNAS, it could be complicit in the deaths of up to 58 people last week.

We need to know more about this tragedy. It is time for Customs Minister Jason Clare and his Head of Customs Department Michael Pezzullo, possibly joined by Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor who has so far declined to comment, to give a media conference clarifying what their agencies knew about this distress at sea, when they knew it, and whether the agencies then acted properly on that knowledge in a timely and useful way, in order to try to save human lives in peril of drowning at sea. At the moment, there are more questions than answers.

A four minute ABC video interview with George Roberts online on Saturday afternoon 13 April concludes with this very sad observation:

'All we have been able to find out so far unless things have changed since late last night AMSA wasn't helping yet or Australian authorities weren't helping yet and Indonesia hadn't launched its own search. It seems to be the same stand-off we had last year where Australia knew there was a problem, Indonesia was incapable of being able to help, and as a result people are left in the water for hours on end.'

Surely Australian ministers cannot leave so many deaths up in the air like this? There is an accountability obligation on their agencies.

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