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Questions surround latest asylum seeker boat disaster


Java and Christmas Island mapReports started coming in on Sunday about another major boat disaster en route to Christmas Island. Questions surround this latest tragedy, ten years after SIEV X and one year after the SIEV 221 shipwreck

BBC News Asia reported the sinking location as about 90km out to sea. ABC News gave the same location. BBC reported at least 250 people were on board. Some reports put the number as high as 380.

The vessel appeared to have been carrying more than twice its capacity. It 'sank Saturday evening and the national search and rescue team [BASARNAS] has already moved out to sea to start the search', rescue team member Brian Gauthier told Indonesian news agency Antara. Gauthier's position is unstated: he may be an Australian Maritime Safety Authority secondment to BASARNAS (AMSA has extensive rescue at sea training-type cooperation underway).

Extreme weather caused reduced visibility. An Afghan survivor told Antara the ship rocked violently, triggering panic among the tightly packed passengers. This made the boat even more unstable and it sank. He and others clung to wreckage and were rescued by local fishermen. He estimated more than 40 children were on the boat.

This account recalls the details of SIEV X: a grossly overloaded, top-heavy boat capsizes after rocking violently in extreme weather; a few survivors are later rescued by local fishermen.

ABC News and Antara sources offer more detail as to the location of these events. Gauthier told Antara some of the rescued are in Prigi in eastern Java, around 30km from where the boat sank. Some survivors are in Trenggalek, a town about 20km further inland. Both places are around 200km east of Jogyakarta, in the Java southern coastal region (and about 350km east of Cilicap, where another sinking took place a few weeks ago).

Antara says the sinking location was estimated to be 'within 20-30 miles from the boundary waters Prigi Coast'. This would seem to locate the sinking in international waters outside the Indonesian contiguous zone, about 30km or more south of Prigi Beach.

Christmas Island — about 700km away in a WSW direction — was the most likely destination from this area. But this is an unusually long route, about twice as long as the direct route south from the Sunda Strait/Panaitan Island area. If the boat started from east of Prigi, its route towards Christmas Island would be diagonal to the coast — which could indeed put its sinking location about 30km from the coast after 90km travelling.

There are more parallels here with SIEV X: a circuitous route from a long way off, yet a sinking location finally not far outside Indonesian contiguous waters, far from Australian waters, and in the Indonesian search and rescue zone; and plausibly accessible to Indonesian fishing boat rescue.

The circumstances raise similar intelligence-related questions as those raised by SIEV X. How did fishing boats find survivors? How did anyone know where the boat was? Were there tracking devices on board? Were there intercepted distress messages from passengers using GPS-reading satellite phones, to relatives, to Indonesia, or to 000 in Australia? Did AFP inform AMSA of any distress message and location? Did AMSA inform BASARNAS?

This overloaded boat must have been at sea at least 15 hours to have got 90km from its embarkation point. Were there any monitored pre-embarkation phonecalls by passengers to family members (as there usually are these days)? Would the Australian border protection intelligence system have picked up such messages? What did they do with them, and when?

The events have a similar smell to them as SIEV X: of a possible Indonesian police (INP) illegal disruption operation, from a remote location, highly profitable and sending a terrible deterrent message to others.

As former AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty testified in the Senate CMI inquiry in 2002, though the AFP would never ask the INP to do anything illegal, once it has asked the INP to do anything to disrupt the movement of people smugglers, the AFP has to leave it in the INP's hands as to how they do it.

Recent Senate Estimates Committee testimony by Customs suggest nothing much has changed. 

As with SIEV X, the Australian border protection system is far from the scene. And with all intelligence information being withheld on national security grounds, we may never know how this latest tragedy happened — as with SIEV X, SIEV 221 and the lost boats in 2009 and 2010.

Australian politicians and officials will blame the easy target we have been taught to hate: people smugglers. The tragedy will be exploited by both sides of politics. Gillard will use it to pressure Abbott to pass her legislation to enable Malaysian offshore processing. Abbott will use it to pressure her for Navy towback of boats, and for Nauru — as SIEV X was exploited by Howard to force Indonesia to accede to Australian towbacks.

It is an indictment of Australia's border protection system, including its secret intelligence-based parts, that such disasters go on happening, and that the Australian system continues to avoid admitting any degree of knowledge or accountability.

I will continue to research these issues, asking fact-based questions that the Australian Government would prefer not be asked. I do this because deaths of people at sea in these numbers are intolerable in any decent society that claims to conduct intelligence gathering on people smugglers, and people smuggling disruption operations in cooperation with the INP, by lawful means.  

Tony Kevin

Tony Kevin is an author and former ambassador to Cambodia and Poland whose 2004 book A Certain Maritime Incident sparked debates about Australia's moral responsibilities on the high seas.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, SIEV X, asylum seekers, people smugglers, Christmas Island



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Existing comments

Thank you very much for your insightful and compassionate work on this distressing topic. For people like myself, most information about border protection only comes through the media and political-speak so your well informed perspectives are a significant contribution to understanding the realities of situation.

Jane | 19 December 2011  

Good on you Kevin for tenaciously continuing with asking questions. After the Siev X tragedy, in October 1991 wherein 353 people (mostly women and children) lost their lives, a limited examination by the Senate Select Committee on ‘A Certain Maritime Incident’ (CMI) recommended a judicial inquiry into people smuggling disruption activities. Needless to say, the Howard Government totally ignored this advice. After the Tampa incident in August 2001, new legislation was rushed through parliament to strip asylum seekers of their rights, the “Pacific Solution” was hurriedly negotiated, and the Tampa asylum seekers were packed off to Nauru and the AFP were given instructions to setup/carry out disruptive activities to stop boats arriving on Australian shores. It is not known exactly what these activities involved but it was not excluded that this could entail sabotaging boats. Rather than use this latest tragedy as ammunition to score political points, why can we not once and for all acknowledge the situation for what it is? No one would ever risk their own lives or that of their loved ones unless they felt their lives were already ‘lost’ and they had no hope of finding it unless they departed from their station of hopelessness. Every human being has the right to live a dignified life and to live in freedom where they can choose how they will live fulfilled, satisfied lives and contribute to their society. Those of us who have been fortunate to be born or received into a country where these opportunities are available need to embrace those who are so desperately seeking with open minds and loving hearts. This does not include locking people in detention where they will certainly perish – if not physically then, as has been proven, mentally.

Emmy Silvius | 19 December 2011  

The greatest degree of responsibility must be borne by the very people who allowed their families and themselves to embark on this voyage in such an overcrowded vessel.

Trent | 19 December 2011  

Dear Trent Have you met any asylum seekers? Have you listened to their stories? Just wondering... It's not after all a very responsible thing for a Jewish carpenter to do to take your wife and baby son on a hazardous journey into Egypt. Unless the alternative is unspeakably worse.

Margaret | 19 December 2011  

Emmy Silvius; SIEV X was in 2001, not 1991, a significant difference. Would the 'Malaysia Solution' have prevented this tragedy? Newspaper reports today suggest there is a well known and smoothly operating process with corrupt Indonesian customs officials providing direct connections between arriving refugees and 'people smugglers', how on earth can this be combated?

chris g | 19 December 2011  

Why can't Abbott and Gillard get together and agree on both Malaysia and Nauru as centres for offshore processing. This pigheadedness must stop on both sides.

Hoss | 19 December 2011  

Thanks Tony for your continued advocacy and writing on these issues. We Australians owe Tony Kevin a huge debt for his courageous and committed work on the death of asylum seekers at sea. Tony is my nomination for Australian of The Year. For over a decade Tony has investigated, researched and asked questions about the maritime disasters that have resulted in the loss of over 600 lives on Siev X, Siev 221 and various other lost boats. For that he has been vilified, marginalized and dismissed by those in power. But Australian democracy is stronger because of his committed and profound advocacy.

Colin Penter | 19 December 2011  

My first thought that they had re-hired Quessay for politics, call me cynical but the smell was there. But Barsanas still has no means to send out search parties and no means of tracking so again it is in Australian security hands. But just for once I would like the brutal thugs who force refugees to leave in the first place to be blamed instead of the people who do nothing more than provide transport. And why Indonesia is our stamping ground is beyond me but everytime Australia sends more cops more refugees are rounded up and jailed or deported at our expense. Which is the only reason we want refugees to stay anywhere but here. Because we care so much that just in the last few weeks we have been forced by the courts not to deport refugees to Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. I do wish though that the Australian media would shut up. Just for one day I wish they would just shut up. Whine, whinge, nag, carp. And not an ounce of recognition for law or legal rights. Because it is not legal to stop people seeking asylum.

Marilyn Shepherd | 19 December 2011  

Hear hear, Colin Penter. Tony Kevin for Australian of the year.

Gavan Breen | 19 December 2011  

Thanks for these comments. There is now more precision as to how far from the Indonesian coast the Prigi SIEV sank. An official news notice on the Basarnas website dated 0510 on 18 December says it sank 'in a position approximately 40 nm south coast Prigi Trenggalek'. A Business Week report http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-12-18/indonesia-says-217-asylum-seekers-missing-after-boat-sinks.html offers the same information from a different source: 'The vessel sank at 7 a.m. local time on Dec. 17 about 40 nautical miles (74 kilometers) off Prigi beach in Trenggalek, East Java, Sugeng Widodo, head of the local disaster management agency, said by phone'. I think we can thus safely take the 40 nm figure as the correct sinking location. In time (as with SIEV X) it may be confirmed by other kinds of information, e.g. official Australian intelligence-based information. This matters, because if any passenger on the Prigi SIEV sent out any distress calls to anyone by satellite mobile phone, these messages and the SIEV's location in international waters could have been monitored and recorded by the Australian border protection system's intelligence-gathering resources. A legal duty of rescue at sea would have been engaged from the time when such a message was received and by whomever it was received. Might an Australian intelligence resource have been the first to know of the emergency, by such means? Did it inform the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, and did AMSA in turn inform BASARNAS? These are difficult questions to seek public answers to. A first step would be to ask if any families in Australia might have received phone calls or text messages from anyone on the Prigi SIEV at any stage of its journey?

tony kevin | 19 December 2011  

All the technical details are well known, but why is it that we only care if people drown? It's not like we celebrate those who arrive.

Marilyn Shepherd | 19 December 2011  

It's disappointing at this time of the year to hear Australians on the radio - even on the ABC - blaming everyone from the people smugglers, the Indonesians - even the unfortunate refugees themselves who are desperate enough to risk their lives rather than stay and be persecuted - rather than having a good hard look at ourselves who continue to support political parties whose policies make it so difficult for refugees to access asylum. Even the Greens who piously condemn the major parties, have not exerted themselves to put pressure on Labour to have a more humane policy. They blackmailed Labour over water policy - they could do it over refugee policy if they really cared enough! If the Christian churches whose founder was a refugee won't do anything - who will!

cathy Cleary | 19 December 2011  

I agree that the echoes of the horrific 2001 sinking of SIEVX are strong here. Like the passengers on SIEVX the passengers on the Prigi SIEV were taken on a route that took them much further away from Christmas Island before they embarked than where they had been residing. In both cases this dramatically increased the length of the journey and so also increased the danger of sinking. Both boats were horrendously overloaded - both boats make the top ten list in terms of numbers aboard - SIEVX is number 2 (only Palapa, the boat rescued by the MV Tampa in August 2001 carried more passengers) and the Prigi SIEV is number 7 (no boat has carried more passengers than this boat in the last ten years). The story of the sinking is again being cast as greedy people smugglers overloading a vessel with scant regard for human life in order to maximise profits. But it is a strange business model that puts 250 people on an unseaworthy vessel in the monsoon season and departs from a port almost twice as far from Christmas Island as the usual departure points... The one thing that is different this time around - and it is striking - is the rescue operation being mounted by BASARNAS with Australian assistance. Back in 2001 there was no official rescue mounted for the 400 or so people who who went down with the vessel. Instead three or four Indonesian fishing boats searched for survivors over a 24 hour period and strangely there was no media coverage of the tragedy until three days after the sinking when the survivors arrived back in Jakarta after two days aboard the fishing vessels...

Marg Hutton | 20 December 2011  

Even stranger when we know that BARSANAS is still in Australian control so again Australia has to report the accident. And still did nothing for over a day.

Marilyn Shepherd | 20 December 2011  

And this is downright hilarious. Channel 7 in Adelaide have just stated the the so-called evil people smuggler "luring' refugees with great promises is in jail in Indonesia for overstaying his welcome. Very, very hard for a prisoner to lure anyone anywhere one would think.

Marilyn Shepherd | 20 December 2011  

The technical details may be important for any future legal action, but apart from the awful human tragedy the real issue is the failure of politicians in Australia and Indonesia to resolve this issue. That's their job. They've failed. They deserve universal condemnation. Let's concentrate on forcing them to take speedy and serious action so no more people perish seeking asylum

Duncan Graham | 21 December 2011  

...and the sydney morning herald reported that most of the passengers had arrived in Jakarta from Dubai and had got through immigration by payment of $500 and were then bussed across Java ! if this is true the plot is highly suspect indeed !

deirdre o'sullivan | 21 December 2011  

Earlier this week the SMH reported that the asylum seekers on the lost ship had first arrived by plane at Jakarta air port, and then paid $500 each to Indonesian immigration officials to be allowed to illegally enter the country. Why is our government not condemning this corrupt behaviour, and challenging it under international law. It is criminal behaviour which treats asylum seekers and our national sovereignty with utter contempt. Do we want to stop innocent asylum seekers being drowned at sea? Then first stop the corrupt Indonesian government doing business with the people smugglers. The big question is this, has our government got the courage to take on the Indonesians?

Claude Rigney | 21 December 2011  

People don't seem to understand that pay and train the Indonesians.

Marilyn Shepherd | 22 December 2011  

Claude, the thing is they are not people smugglers, no-one is being smuggled against their will which is the requirement for it to be smuggling. Smuggling of migrants and trafficking of persons protocols both utterly exclude the movement of refugee applicants across borders because refugee applicants already have the legal right to cross borders. The only thing that is happening is people's lives actually being saved all over the world in every country. We are the only country in the world who jails the ferrymen when all they did was provide the service the refugees asked for. Why would you jail the man who gives a hitchhiker a ride and call it smuggling when it was the hitchhiker who wanted and asked for the ride because it is the same principal. Already today we see that Indonesia is locking the survivors 12 per room and abusing them, which is why refugees always leave Indonesia and we have always known this. We have an illegal program in Indonesia - we pay them to jail and deport refugees without process. And we want Malaysia to do the same thing

Marilyn Shepherd | 23 December 2011  

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