From the Archives: Safety of Lives at Sea and Australia’s Responses to Asylum Seeker Boats
With authorities calling off the search for survivors from Thursday’s asylum seeker boat disaster north of Christmas Island, concerns are now being raised about the timing of events and whether a more coordinated response by Indonesian and Australian rescue authorities could have saved lives.
“[The] Australian Maritime Saftey Authority (AMSA) was in touch with this boat since late Tuesday and was still in touch 36 hours later, when a plane flew over the boat only two hours before it was discovered capsized,” said Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition. “It is absurd for AMSA authorities to simply advise an asylum boat in distress to turn back to Indonesia. AMSA has far greater capacity and resources to provide rescue support than Indonesia. Australia can have planes over Indonesian waters far quicker than Indonesia can mobilise patrol boats.”
But this is not the first time that a more concerned response by Australian agencies could have saved the lives of asylum seekers at sea. The following is from the into the sinking of Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel (SIEV) X, emphasis added:
According to Admiral Smith’s information, you notified via an [operational summary] to Admiral Smith that the vessel was overdue possibly due to poor condition of the boat and the large numbers on board. The Rescue Coordination Centre also independently reported to Admiral Smith that the vessel was overdue. But it does not seem that Search and Rescue or anybody else actually requested anybody to do anything about it, to go and look for it. They did not ask you to go and look at all to see where it was and whether it was in difficulty?
Rear Admiral Bonser: What Search and Rescue then implemented you would have to ask them but, as far as Coastwatch are concerned, we were still conducting all of the surveillance that we had had in place which was specifically dedicated to finding just those boats.
Bartlett: But they did not give you any specific request or direction or anything to go and look over in this area? Based on your earlier evidence, that is not necessarily where you go anyway.
Bartlett: And they did not seem to do so with the Relex people either. You have said before that, as far as you are aware, there has been no report or even any form of informal investigation into this situation. This was a circumstance where admittedly it was probably in international waters and closer to Indonesia than here, but we have been involved in fairly extensive efforts to rescue a single yachtsman or yachtswoman a huge number of kilometres from the Australian coast. We have had a few fishermen drown at sea and had coronial inquests and Senate inquiries when there were three or so. We have had massive inquiries when we have had two or three people die on the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. All of those circumstances have their own specifics and I am not trying to say they are all the same thing, but we have an incident in which 353 people drown and nobody has even made a general comment about whether there is some way we can perhaps stop this happening again or whether there is anything we can do better.
Bonser: I have seen nothing about that.
Senator Peter Cook: That is equivalent to about one jumbo jet going down with a full passenger load.
Bonser: We knew that it was small and overcrowded.
Faulkner: And by ‘overcrowded’ would that mean that you would know that there might be around 400 passengers embarked?
Bonser: We had an indication of the numbers, yes.
Faulkner: Were you aware that some passengers were not able or were unwilling to be boarded?
Bonser: I understand that there was an indication in some of the advice that that was the case, that people either had not got on or had got off the vessel
Faulkner: So there is no doubt, effectively, that you have got intelligence inputs here basically indicating that the vessel is barely seaworthy. Would that be right?
Bonser: We did not know that because we had not seen it. What we knew was that this vessel was reported as being small and overcrowded, and that was the information we advised to all of the relevant operational authorities.
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