by Victoria Martin

“So danger… small boat” “help now!” “We have no life jackets” “Water is coming in, we have water coming in” “yes yes water”.

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As I slipped into the Coroner’s Court in Perth to attend the inquest into the sinking of the SIEV 358 in which at least ninety people died, the recordings of the communication between the doomed ship and Australian authorities at AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) filled the courtroom. I sat for some time absorbing the desperate tone in the voice pleading for assistance from those whose duty it was to mount a rescue. It was a duty they would refuse to honour until it was too late for almost half the people whose lives were in their hands.

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During one particularly harrowing exchange, I noticed a man sitting alone at the back with his head in his hands. He was a survivor. I wondered, when the video from the surveillance aircraft was played, how he felt to see the tiny damaged ship bobbing low in the water a day before it sank. Or hear the repeated calls for assistance dismissed as “normal refugee patter”?

On day two Mr Lloyd, civil servant in charge of AMSA, said that no mayday was raised by AMSA until after the ship capsized. He maintained that the ship was not in distress until shortly before disaster struck, and dismissed the distress calls as irrelevant. On at least one occasion he read from his prepared statement that “illegal immigrants” often call in with bogus distress calls. He said they cannot mount a rescue every time since, statistically speaking, the majority of boats will make it.

It is a point of view a cynic might expect from Customs and Border Security. But this was not Customs and Border Security. This was the maritime rescue authority.

Now the coroner and the barristers will re-convene next month to continue the forensic examination of the evidence and decide – are AMSA legally culpable for the deaths of those people?
Whatever decision the coroner ultimately makes, I am left with the contrast between the desperation of the asylum seekers trying to get help for all those on board, and the indifference of those who were not interested in hearing what was being said, purely because of who was saying it — “illegal immigrants”.

Tony Kevin, who has written extensively on this subject in the recently published Reluctant Rescuers, tells me the protocol in the Navy is to investigate every distress call it receives. This is also the standard we expect when we call 000. The question I find myself asking is whether the attitude of Border Control, that refugees are “illegals” invading Australia and that the task at hand is to deter them, has in fact contaminated AMSA and blinded staff working in the Maritime Safety Authority to their core task – the rescue of people and the preservation of life at sea, for surely in abandoning those asylum seekers to the sea, they abandoned their duty, their honour and ultimately their own humanity.

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