More asylum seeker deaths, more unanswered questions


Paper boat sinkingEven after the Minister for Home Affairs Jason Clare's well-crafted media conference on Sunday morning, many important questions remain about the latest asylum-seeker boat sinking tragedy.

A reported capsized hull was found semi-submerged 65 nautical miles northwest of Christmas Island at 070519 UTC (i.e. 3.19pm AEST on Friday 7 June). This find triggered a Mayday (top-level distress) message to all shipping from AMSA Rescue Coordination Centre 11 and a half hours later. Independent SIEV X researcher Marg Hutton found and published this Mayday message early on Saturday.

Clare announced the finding thus: 'About 3pm AEST, on Friday, the P3 [RAAF long-range surveillance aircraft] sighted a submerged hull in the water 65 NM NW of Christmas Island.' Clare said the capsized hull was not seen again, but that some debris was later sighted from the air at around 5pm. 

Later, 13 dead bodies were sighted from the air — they had not been recovered as the focus was still on searching for survivors from the boat, estimated to be carrying 55 to 60 asylum-seekers, including women and children.

The Mayday message reported the position at which debris (or the capsized semi-submerged hull — the Mayday seems to have conflated these two sightings, about two hours apart) as 09-57 S 104-34 E (9 degrees 57 minutes south, 104 degrees 34 minutes east). This is actually east-north-east of Christmas Island, several nautical miles south of the boundary between the Indonesian and Australian maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) regions.

This fact makes the search and rescue response to this incident fully an Australian responsibility. Both Clare and Admiral David Johnston, Commander of Border Protection Command (BPC) made clear at the press conference that BASARNAS (the Indonesian search and rescue authority) is not involved in this search and rescue operation.

Clare volunteered at the conference that there had been a previous Australian sighting of this vessel at a position 27 NM north-west of Christmas Island, on Wednesday 5 June. This position is just 3 NM outside the contiguous zone in which BPC normally intercepts incoming asylum-seeker boats.

He said the boat was reported 'stationary but did not appear in distress'. He said the people on board had waved but made no distress signal. He said subsequent searches of the same area on Thursday by HMAS Warramunga and BPC aircraft had not spotted the boat again.

Clare did not reveal what Hutton had found and reported on Friday — a pan-pan notice sent by AMSA RCC to all shipping at midnight UTC on Thursday night (10am AEST on Friday 7 June), reporting the time and location of the Wednesday sighting as a boat 'reported overdue on a voyage from Indonesia to Christmas Island, last known position 10-04 S 105-21 E at 050743 UTC' (5.43pm AEST on Wednesday 5 June).

This was the same boat that Clare said had been sighted at this position, not appearing to be in distress.

A pan-pan notice signifies that there is a 'state of urgency' on board a boat. This is distinct from a Mayday call, which means that there is 'imminent danger to life'. The pan-pan 'informs potential rescuers (including emergency services and other craft in the area) that a safety problem exists, whereas Mayday will call upon them to drop all other activities and immediately initiate a rescue attempt'.

The fact that the boat was seen as stationary on Wednesday should have alerted BPC to the risk of likely engine failure, causing drift away from Christmas Island if the boat was not quickly located and intercepted and assisted by a BPC surface vessel.

Johnson told the press conference that the fact that the capsized hull was later seen on Friday 44 NM away to the west, around 48 hours after the first sighting of the boat, was 'feasible: the westerly movement (of a drifting boat) was consistent with the drift pattern' of the prevailing ocean current of 1 NM/hour westwards. BPC knew this.

In keeping with its interception obligations, BPC should have been quick to send a boat out from Christmas Island, a short 27 NM away, to check on the status of the reported stationary boat, then just outside the contiguous zone in which BPC normally intercepts incoming boats. There were still enough daylight hours to send a boat out on Wednesday afternoon. But if they knew the boat was drifting away, there was no urgency about intercepting the boat in terms of BPC's border protection obligations.

It was not until Friday that BPC, having failed to find the boat on Thursday, asked AMSA to issue a pan-pan notice to shipping. The pan-pan notice went out 40 hours after the sighting.

Had BPC reacted more quickly on Wednesday afternoon, those 55 or 60 drowned people would probably still be alive. Instead, their boat drifted helplessly westwards, away from Christmas Island, and at some time in the next 46 hours — we may never know when — capsized and began to sink.

Clare said there will be the usual internal Customs enquiry and that the WA Coroner — who is investigating a deaths-at-sea incident on 21 June 2012 — may choose to investigate this incident. It would seem legally that he should, since bodies will probably be recovered in the Australian SAR zone.

On its face, it is another case of failure by BPC to take prompt and diligent interception and/or rescue action resulting in avoidable deaths at sea. There should be no excuse for this apparent lapse in professional standards of interception and rescue at sea by Australian border protection authorities. They know these boats are unsafe. Why do they not strive to save lives when they can? 


Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin's most recent book is Reluctant Rescuers (2012). His previous publication on refugee boat tragedy — A Certain Maritime Incident — was the recipient of a NSW Premier's literary award in 2005.

Boat image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, asylum seekers, boat people, SIEV X



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Existing comments

I think the title of Tony's most recent book "Reluctant Rescuers" probably sums up this latest tragedy. The 'legality' of the situation was more important than decisive and humane action on the part of BPC. Stepping outside what they are required to do may send mixed signals to vulnerable boat people - that message may be interpreted as "we regard you as human beings worthy of risking our own safety (physical and psychological)." As the situation stands, the government (and Opposition) leads the way in regarding border protection as more important than people and so acceptance of this creeps into the psyche of the public.

Pam | 10 June 2013  

Every boat sinking with lives lost is a policy failure of the Labor/Greens and a vindication of John Howard.

HH | 10 June 2013  

'They know these boats are unsafe.' But Tony Kevin still refuses to criticize those who load up asylum seekers into them and send them across the open sea.

David Edgar | 10 June 2013  

HH, it vindicates John Howard not one jot. Trading humans who don't drown claiming care about others who might is illegal and immoral. If you read the article you would read that it was the Australian public service who may have delayed action to save lives because both major parties have made it possible to be selective about rescues.

Marilyn | 10 June 2013  

@ HH,It can be very edifying to read Letters to the Editor (in my case SMH). As a loyal Greens voter (the Greens being the only party to rightly treat the asylum seeker issue as a human rights issue) I have stumbled upon their election mantra "Stop the stoats". Thanks to Iain Stewart, well done.

Pam | 11 June 2013  

Tony Kevin continues to diligently document the abject failure of the present government in the matter of asylum seekers. Still waiting, however, for for similar dedication on his part to advocacy for a solution. Perhaps he doesn't have a solution?

john frawley | 11 June 2013  

The people who drowned deserve more respect than demonstrated by those who immediately launch into political point-scoring. As a chronicler of asylum seeker deaths at sea, Tony Kevin summarises the information of each incident, asking what we, Australia, could have done to prevent these deaths. Although there is no substantive difference in present policy and strategy from that of the Howard government, asylum seekers keep coming. Our first duty towards them is to remain vigilant for possible boats in distress and to render assistance in a timely manner.

Ian Fraser | 11 June 2013  

Tony Kevin's article tragically reinforces my growing dismay at the lack of compassion Australia is showing people seeking asylum. I find my frustration growing into anger but simply don't know what to do. Australia desperately needs courageous leaders who will place concern for the wellbeing of asylum seekers above the issue of border protection.

robert van zetten | 11 June 2013  

Thank you, Mr Kevin, for again documenting the tragedy of lives lost whilst seeking a decent life. Lest we forget. Those playing cheap shots are in the same position as any one individual; they also cannot and do not offer solutions. Time has moved on since the 'Howard solution' and it has rightly been noted that those who transport the poor wretches now know that the vast majority of their cargo will end up being cleared to live in Australia eventually - because they are GENUINE refugees. Australia and its neighbours need to work together to try to ameliorate the political and economic situations that provide the impetus for boat journeys. It is to Australia's deep shame that this issue has become the plaything of party politics.

Patricia R | 11 June 2013  

Human Rights of Refugees demand priority

Peter Ryan | 11 June 2013  

The solution to the problem of desperate people risking their lives to come to Australia is to relieve their desperation. We can't do much about this, but our government should put what pressure they can on the governments of the countries they come from. It won't change until the people of those countries become more humane. In the meantime, we must assume, except in occasional cases where there might be good reasons not to, that all Hazaras from Afghanistan, Rohingyas from Myanmar and Tamils from Sri Lanka are genuine refugees, and treat them accordingly.

Gavan Breen | 11 June 2013  

'They know these boats are unsafe' says it all. There is no solution given there are estimates of 4 million possible refugees in the region.

angela | 11 June 2013  

We all know that there are no levers to pull to ajust the asylum seekers policy. It's all push and no pull. Consequently the only solution will be to the whole Parliament to realise this; there is no political point scoring worth it because it all costs lives. Get a bipartisan policy and work out a solution. You can't stop the boats. But would you sink them to make the point?

Eveline Goy | 11 June 2013  

Now they are so concerned about human lives in our government they are trying to force Hazara to stay home and be slaughtered. They have no idea of the law and they refuse to learn - the Hazara are victims of genocide, ergo Australia is complicit in the genocide.

Marilyn | 11 June 2013  

Australia needs to take up its responsibility as a world citizen and accept that we will have people coming to seek refuge here. What makes us think that we have the right to deny people seeking shelter? If we put all the millions we are squandering on denying human rights on Manus Island into supporting Amnesty International's work for justice and peace, maybe these people would feel safe to stay at home. While they feel their lives endangered they'll take the boats, just like we would if we too were facing certain torture and death. Grow up Australia and stop putting politics before lives.

Bernadette | 11 June 2013  

Kevin, Great sadness and distress to those of us watching the official govt/opp. bullshit on asylum-seekers (Pontius Pilate-like washing of hands - ugh!) - and the callousness with regards to inaction on gathering the bodies floating upon the sea. These, our brothers and sisters fleeing persecution & wars in which our nation is involved. But will the pollies cease their brutal hand-wringing - they and their shock-jock hand-maidens? More: Ugh!

Jim KABLE | 11 June 2013  

Sorry Marylin - totally disagree, though I respect your concerns. In our last contretemps ("Making An Example of Asylum Seeker Children" 15 May 2013) you ended by correctly pointing out that world refugee numbers had risen in the years since Howard left office. My rebuttal, which pointed out that world refugee numbers had also risen by a roughly similar percentage in the later Howard years with zilch increase in boat arrivals to Australia was inexplicably censored (not your fault, but what's going on here? Censorship?). But more importantly, it's not immoral to do what Howard did. Under his time this lethal traffic was snuffed out. With Rudd/Gillard the deaths began again. I'll ignore the ridiculous allegation that both major parties have an interest in killing boat people by neglect - unless of course, Greens' Sarah Hanson-Young's glib comment re. some boat deaths, eerily reminiscent of the "s**t happens" Tony Abbott remark (which was wilfully misreported), is taken to be indicative of the same intent. But most importantly, Marylin, can you and your ilk get off your high horse for about five seconds and inform us low-lifes about that thing which you have energetically kept from us all: your better-than-Howard solution?

HH | 11 June 2013  

HH,the refugee numbers have risen but so what? That is not down to anything our government has done and it is ridiculous to think we can torture the innocent because there are more of them.

Marilyn | 11 June 2013  

"Why do they (the BPC) not strive to save lives when they can?". The BPC is an arm of the Federal Labor government, which is where the buck, that saves asylum seeker stops.

Claude Rigney | 11 June 2013  

There is no solution because there is no question. Everyone has the right to seek asylum, is there something about that you don't understand.

Marilyn | 12 June 2013  

Sorry Marilyn, but I think I'll defer to the word of the people smugglers: John Howard stopped the boats. That's what I further proved by showing, although numbers of refugees were going up in the world, he successfully eliminated the pull factors and reduced the flow into Australia to a trickle - thereby saving who knows how many hundreds of lives. (Your argument was that world refugee numbers happened to go up after Rudd dismantled the Howard govt system and that explained the rise in boat arrivals.) Secondly, why should it be assumed that anyone who flies to Indonesia, tears up their identity papers, lies about their age and pays for a boat to Australia is seeking asylum as opposed to merely seeking a better way of life? As is perfectly obvious from the patterns of people movements into Europe, there are tens of millions of people in the world who are not being persecuted but who would prefer, quite understandably, to live in affluent Western nations like Australia rather than in their own country. If "asylum" is a password that gets them in, who can blame them for using it? Yet who is gullible enough to take all of them at their word?

HH | 12 June 2013  

I strongly recommend to people interested in knowing more about the facts of how last weekend's tragedy of 5-10 June near Christmas Island could have been allowed to happen, to read a new essay by Marg Hutton on the Homepage of her website , ''Another avoidable tragedy on our doorstep'', 11 June 2013. Until there is an official public enquiry or inquest, this essay will remain the Gold Standard account of the incident. Please make it widely known.

tony kevin | 12 June 2013  

The permanent URL of Marg Hutton's fine piece on the weekend sinking which I just referenced, is Tony Kevin

tony kevin | 12 June 2013  

There is a question, Marilyn? How many asylum-seekers can Australia reasonably take? At what point do we say that our economy and society cannot bear any more of the burden? Anyone who fails to even raise this question just wants to take the moral high ground. It makes one look good to have endless compassion. However, it actually shows hubris and a refusal to accept reality. We cannot help everyone. We cannot end all suffering in this world. Just because we cannot help all does not mean that we help none. We have to work out how far as a society we are willing to go and what we are willing to do. How many of the accept-them-all crowd are giving every single spare dollar they possess to asylum-seekers? How many of them would put up asylum-seekers in every spare room in their own homes? Not many I would guess. Quite rightly they would say that there were limits to what they could do as individuals. I fail to see why such principles do not apply to us as a nation.

MJ | 12 June 2013  

MJ raises some pertinent questions in his comment. We are an island continent with a large land mass with most of the population clustered around the coastal fringe. We can certainly take more refugees than we do at present. Sadly, what the government and opposition are failing to do is to work out a bipartisan, and humanitarian, approach to this issue. People are risking their lives, dying in the ocean and we are sitting on our hands. We elect governments to act for us.

Pam | 12 June 2013  

There's nothing wrong with reducing this debate to the political/economic push/pull factors, but let's not pretend it's a Christian ethical method of analysis - just as the death penalty cannot be justified in an ethically Christian way even if a survey shows it may reduces crime levels.

AURELIUS | 12 June 2013  

"Tony Kevin continues to diligently document the abject failure of the present government in the matter of asylum seekers. Still waiting, however, for for similar dedication on his part to advocacy for a solution. Perhaps he doesn't have a solution?" I think that is the real issue. It is also an extremely complicated one, and, I fear, not reducible to simplistic solutions. Therein lies the problem.

Edward F | 12 June 2013  

Edward F: Yes, the long-term solution to asylum seekers fleeing persection and violence is complex. But this week the real issue for Australia is whether or not we responded as quickly as we could have to the needs of the innocent drowning victims. Personally, I sadly believe that had the boat people been English, French or white South African the response of our Government and media would've been much quicker and more widely reported.

robert van zetten | 12 June 2013  

"Edward F: Yes, the long-term solution to asylum seekers fleeing persection and violence is complex. But this week the real issue for Australia is whether or not we responded as quickly as we could have to the needs of the innocent drowning victims. Personally, I sadly believe that had the boat people been English, French or white South African the response of our Government and media would've been much quicker and more widely reported." With the greatest respect to you, Robert, I hope that we have moved on from the "White Australia" mindset and that you are incorrect in your assumption. No one in their right mind would rejoice in these deaths. However, as I said previously, I think the deaths, tragic as they are, are only part of this issue. For the wider issue I would recommend Greg Sheridan's article "People are fed up with continued growth in asylum-seeker numbers" in today's (13/06/2013) Australian (Commentary page 12). This is an issue on which it's easy to be emotive. I think we cannot afford to be swept away with emotion (which is not the same as not caring). I fear the debate on this topic is, certainly to some extent, being morally hijacked by those who see it as merely a "moral" problem with no practical long term implications. To allow this to happen on a national scale would be incredibly stupid. I would recommend Sheridan's article, which, despite its title (chosen to get people to read it rather than to court controversy I suspect). Having recommended the article I feel I would prefer to leave it to readers to come to their own conclusions after weighing up all the evidence and trying to establish what the true situation is. They may agree with Tony Kevin. They may not. That's the nature of a free society. I would like to leave it at that.

Edward F | 13 June 2013  

I'm not for a moment suggesting that people are rejoicing at these tragic deaths. However I do honestly believe that well-to-do immigrants, lone white sailors and the like are treated much, much better by Australia than desperate asylum seekers in leaking boats looking for refuge and safety.

robert van zetten | 13 June 2013  

Robert, I have no personal issue whatsoever with you on this topic. My own opinion is that the asylum seeker problem is a multi-faceted and complex one which I think cannot be reduced to the simplistic level I think it has been in this and other threads on the topic originated by a Tony Kevin article. I say this with some considerable reservation because this is not intended to be a personal attack on him. It is his focus on a limited aspect of a complex topic that concerns me. I fear this distorts the whole issue. Hence my reference to the Sheridan article. I think that gives a pretty accurate picture of the overall problem. It is the overall problem and its mid and long term consequences which concern me. Sheridan deals with these. To put it bluntly, I do not see this as a simple one dimensional "moral" issue but as a complex problem in the real world which requires more than a simple "Agree/Disagree" response. To put it bluntly, this is not Social Responsibility 101 where we are spoon fed with stock responses and those who do not so respond are mentally censured and morally bludgeoned for being different. That is not how reasoned moral action is engendered in the real world.

Edward F | 14 June 2013  

Taking refugees as if they are bales of wool is not the point and asking how many is like asking how long is a piece of string for one simple reason. Everyone has the right to seek asylum. That means every person on the planet. Which means that if every person on the planet wanted to come here or to any other country and claim asylum that is their absolute right.

Marilyn | 16 June 2013  

Thanks for this correspondence. With respect to all, I will continue to focus on the question of the Australian border protection and maritime safety authorities' indisputable legal and moral obligation to provide an equal first-class rescue at sea response to any boat reporting or seen to be in distress. This clearly did not happen in this case, two days were wasted, so there is a case to answer by BPC and AMSA- I hope before the WA Coroner's Court. I will attend the Coroner's Court hearings into SIEV 358, Kaniva, the boat that sank on 21 JUne 2012. Full details on Paris Aristotle, whom I respect, has suggested to me that we do not really know there were 55-60 people on board last week's boat. Perhaps there were more people below decks? With no survivors, we may never know. If, on the other hand, there were intelligence reports from Indonesia or distress calls from the boat that this boat was carrying 55-60 people, that would be a reliable figure. This illustrates the difficulty of making accurate estimates of confirmed and probable deaths. Rightly, Marg Hutton's Drownings Table leans to the conservative side. It does no service to the cause of safety of life at sea for asylum seekers to inflate or 'round upwards' these figures. Accuracy sends the most powerful message.

tony kevin | 17 June 2013  

No-one has the right to claim asylum in a country if they are not bona fide asylum seekers fleeing persecution. Every nation has a perfect right to evaluate whether someone is or is not an asylum seeker, and turn away those whom it judges are not. Every nation also has the right to discriminate between types of asylum seekers, and reject those whose presence might reasonably be adjudged to be inimical to the common good - e.g. terrorists, convicted serious criminals, or people with beliefs and ideologies which, if spread about, would gravely disturb the peace and security of the nation. Finally, the right to asylum of even bona fide, peaceful refugees is contingent upon the ability of a nation to sustain them. There are more than 40 million displaced people in the world. Even if all are genuine asylum seekers, they don't, each and every one of these 40 million have a right to seek asylum in Lichtenstein (area 161 sq km).

HH | 19 June 2013  

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