Australia and Indonesia's deadly games of pass-the-parcel


Blood-stained parcel stamped 'Shipped'Next week's public inquest by the WA Coroner, Alastair Hope, into SIEV 358 (Kaniva), which capsized halfway to Christmas Island on 21 June 2012, drowning 90 people, is welcome.

The SIEV 358 case encapsulates key questions as to why these tragedies (18 in the past four years, resulting in over 950 deaths) too often happen at interfaces between Australia's border protection system, Australia's maritime search and rescue system, and the under-resourced Indonesian maritime search and rescue system.

It raises issues of Indonesian and Australian Search and Rescue (SAR) responsibilities in the so-called Indonesian SAR Region, and of coordination of Australian Border Protection Command (BPC) and Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) responses to a notified SAR emergency.

Readers of my series of Eureka Street articles on asylum seeker boat sinkings will know that, in my assessment, mass deaths occur when the rescue responsibility baton is passed too late, fumbled by the recipient agency, or should not have been passed at all.

Australia's two official agencies most concerned in rescuing at-risk asylum seekers — BPC under the authority of Customs, and the AMSA Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) — routinely get it right. Many lives are regularly and without fuss saved by BPC ships. Just over the past week, Jason Clare issued four 'BPC assists vessel' media releases for events that probably occurred within the so-called Indonesian Search and Rescue Region (SRR).

Often, AMSA RCC is not involved at all. But sometimes, BPC declares a SAR situation, and AMSA then becomes the lead Australian agency. Sometimes AMSA is the first to know of distress. AMSA then has to decide whether to pass the baton to its Indonesian counterpart BASARNAS, a vastly less well-resourced agency.

There is a large official documentary trail on SIEV 358 in the public arena. The official Customs report awaits public release. But FOI searches late last year uncovered many apparently complete official chronologies and talking points prepared for possible use in Senate committees.

It seems there are three kinds of possible systems failure the Coroner might examine.

First, there is the apparent initial failure by AMSA to launch a full-scale Australian SAR response as soon as it received the first located distress call at 0130 AEST Wednesday 20 June from the boat, then in international waters 38 NM south of Indonesia. Second and third, there are questions of whether BASARNAS and BPC each took effective SAR action in the ensuing 37.5 hours.

Over the first 9.5 hours, AMSA negotiated a transfer of the SAR coordination responsibility to BASARNAS. Indonesia handed this back to AMSA 36 hours later: some 7.5 hours after a routine BPC surveillance flight had detected the capsized boat halfway between Indonesia and Christmas Island. During this time the boat had limped forward some 70 NM towards Christmas Island before capsizing.

There was one reported Australian sighting, from a routine BPC Dash 8 surveillance flight, at approximately 1700 AEST on 20 June — 15.5 hours after the first located distress call. The vessel was reported, at a location not yet publicly disclosed, to be travelling south at 4 NM/hour and with no visible signs of distress.

It is normal for BPC to photograph such incidents, and the Coroner could ask to see images. Were people waving from the deck? Might this have indicated some kind of distress that should have been investigated by a BPC ship? Survivors might remember this overflight and how much later their boat capsized.

At this stage, it is not clear what AMSA did, and what BASARNAS did, to alert shipping — including BPC ships and aircraft in the vicinity — during the 37.5 hours leading up to detection of the capsized hull. BPC seems to have only done its routine surveillance.

Did AMSA or BASARNAS send out Panpan or Mayday SAR signals to shipping? Had AMSA, BPC or BASARNAS judged the distress calls not to be genuine? Why did AMSA pass the rescue coordination responsibility to BASARNAS for 36 hours, and what did BASARNAS do while Australia continued to receive distress phone-calls?

Strange things happened during the final morning. ABC reporter Matt Brown has obtained in Indonesia a series of faxes from AMSA RCC to BASARNAS. One dated 21 June said RCC had received information that 'at approximately 0730 AEST a maritime vessel in a position approx. 110 NM NNW of Christmas Island may be taking on water with persons on board fearful of their safety'.

This appears to be the same information referred to in the FOI briefs, that 'at 11.07am AEST BPC received additional information that raised concerns about the safety of the vessel. The information was passed to RCC Australia at 11.37am AEST who then passed the information to BASARNAS.'

If the Coroner should find this ABC-sourced fax from RCC to BASARNAS to be authentic, it would mean the boat may have capsized in that location soon after 0730 — 7.5 hours before a BPC routine surveillance aircraft detected its capsized hull from the air at 1500. This seems to suggest more puzzling delays in BPC's and AMSA's SAR responses, late in the development of this emergency.

The issue of the Indonesian SRR hangs over this whole story. Indonesia has not adhered to at least one SAR convention, nor has it accepted its internationally designated SRR.

We know BPC routinely intercepts and provides rescue assistance to SIEVs in the Indonesian SRR, under three international SAR conventions signed by Australia, which require any country that receives the first distress call and has resources to respond, to do so regardless of which country's SRR the call is made from.

Yet there are hints that there may be an expectation by Australian ministers or officials that BASARNAS should take lead responsibility for SAR emergencies in parts of its SRR closer to Indonesia than Christmas Island; though they would also know that each time Indonesia has been persuaded to accept this responsibility, it has failed to organise effective SAR action, and people have died.

If this is an Australian-planned learning process for BASARNAS, it has been hugely costly: a deadly game of bureaucratic pass-the-parcel, with bodies floating in the water all too often the tragic outcome.

Lots for the Coroner to look into next week, if he so decides.

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.

Bloody parcel image from Shutterstock

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



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Existing comments

I suppose it depends on how narrowly or how broadly the WA coroner interprets his brief. One would hope that he would not be influenced by party-political considerations. Morality in international politics is not simply a matter of civilised traditiion, which Australia would claim to follow, but is also influenced by how secure a nation feels. Somehow Australians have been made to feel afraid. Refugees and asylum seekers have been branded as threats to our security and our borders. I think this is hogwash but how can one persuade a traumatised child that all men in soiled raincoats are not going to kidnap them?

Uncle Pat | 22 June 2013  

How very refreshing to find that finally Tony Kevin has had the good grace to concede in print in ES that the Australian authorities often ("routinely" he now writes) get it right and that, revelation of all revelations, Indonesian authorities maybe get it wrong sometimes or simply ignore their clear responsibilities. Thank goodness that we in Australia are not the entire cause of all the disasters besetting refugees at sea as seems to have been the starting premise for many of this commentator's previous writings. .

john frawley | 22 June 2013  

Hope will do what he always does, blame the victims for daring to leave Afghanistan to save their own lives.

Marilyn | 22 June 2013  

John, why do you criticiseTony and not address this story? These people died because Australia alone was wrong.

Marilyn | 22 June 2013  

Don't forget the old sayings Kevin...1. "If you want a job done properly, get somebody else to do it for you". 2. "If you do need to ask for help,......make sure you ask somebody who cares". If we don't care and want others to do the job for us,........ then in the future,....... the current total of 950 deaths of desperate asylum seekers at sea, will be the tip of the iceberg of drownings.

Claude Rigney | 22 June 2013  

Thanks again Tony for lucidly wading into this noxious territory. It is clear that our rescue of boats in danger at sea should be totally independent of who is on the boat; the diabolical complexities, for public policy, of asylum seekers on boats should be totally separate from our rescue activities. To achieve a human and tolerable outcome we need to return to bipartisanship where whoever is in power will try their best to address the issue, and will be given power to act. Mistakes will be made but at least there will not be this deadlock which blocks the boat people into a limbo indefinitely, with deadly consequences for them. The world changes continuously, more countries are in conflict than ever and refugee numbers have ballooned - when ours is a hung parliament, Yesterday's solutions will not work. Perhaps our politicians will find the pity, the humanity and the courage to work together on this. It is a poor policy where the ones penalised are those least in control of their actions or fate.

Eveline Goy | 23 June 2013  

Marilyn, in the interests of honest advertising, you need to affix your preferred solution to every post you make on these issues. To wit: that every one of the hundreds of millions of asylum seekers in the world is entitled to migrate to Australia as of this instant. Have I got you wrong? Please advise.

HH | 23 June 2013  

Australia and Indonesia have to be a lot stronger in controlling the murderous people smuggling industry. Julia Gillard tried hard to undo all the damage done by Kevin Rudd and it may take a new Government to provide Australia with security we need and asylum seekers with safer means to find asylum

Beat Odermatt | 24 June 2013  

Marilyn. I thought I was addressing this story and pointing out that Tony Kevin was finally addressing the possibility that there are two sides to this story, something that has not always been evident in his posts on ES.

john frawley | 24 June 2013  

"Readers of my series of Eureka Street articles on asylum seeker boat sinkings will know that, in my assessment, mass deaths occur when the rescue responsibility baton is passed too late, fumbled by the recipient agency, or should not have been passed at all." I guess Tony, fair being fair, we need to wait and see what the WA Coroner's report actually says. Your opinion(s) as to what he/she may say in the report are, like the opinion(s) of any other intelligent observer before the report is released, conjecture. It would be instructive if someone who really knows the situation, independent of both the authorities and you, could give us their judgement of the perspicacity, or otherwise, of your many comments on and overall grasp of the situation. Like in most controversies, opinions differ. I remain unconvinced of your case. Just because you have written a book on the subject - I'd be interested to know why as a former diplomat and reasonable high level public servant you became interested and did - does not necessarily make you the authority all should defer to on the subject. I think, this being Eureka Street, some of the simpler readers and commentators on your pieces on the subject take them as gospel. That would not, I think, be the aim of the editors. You are an extremely persuasive communicator. Whether you are right or wrong, or partly right on certain aspects and off target on others, is something quite difficult for the average reader to gauge.

Edward F | 24 June 2013  

Edward the BPC people are condemned by their own paperwork.

Marilyn | 25 June 2013  

"Edward the BPC people are condemned by their own paperwork. Marilyn" Sadly, this trite one liner, in answer to a detailed critique, does nothing for me. Over-simplification is inappropriate here: there is a serious national debate on about people smuggling and its ramifications. I notice that the WA Coronial inquiry has rejected Tony Kevin's submission.

Edward Fido | 27 June 2013  

Edward and John seek to discredit Tony Kevin views but they are frankly wrong. I have attended the Coronial Inquiry here in Perth over the last 2 days and heard every word spoken, every question asked. The case made by the Counsel assisting the Coroner is consistent with the case made by Tony. If Tony got it wrong as Edward suggests perhaps he could explain why the Counsel assisting the Coroner is putting many of the same arguments. If he does not believe me he might like to read the various press reports in the Australian, the ABC and the West Australian by reporters who were also there. And Edward should be aware that rejection of a submission does not suggest that the views contained in that submission are also rejected.

colin penter | 28 June 2013  

"Edward and John seek to discredit Tony Kevin views but they are frankly wrong." I can only speak for myself, Colin, but I am not out to discredit TK's views per se but have some queries about his methodology and conclusions. This may seem a fine point to you but I think your point on his submission being rejected could also be taken as being somewhat legalistic. Two days is not the Coronial Inquest. Let's wait till its conclusion.

Edward F | 02 July 2013  

A boat is in "distress" 38miles away from safety in Sunda Straits, yet it manages to get 70nm FURTHER away from safety going in the opposite direction after distress calls. It decides to get further from safety? Wouldn't you say the Australian ships and planes all hanging around up there are encouraging them to go further out to sea, into danger, rather than return to safety? Having lived in Jakarta and sailed back and forth in those waters I know there are HEAPS of boats up there in Indonesia as well as huge huge ferries operating in the straits that could assist. 1) blame the vessels crew, 2) contributed by the passengers who didn't force the crew back to safety AND 3) on those that encourage vessels to head towards those great Australian services AMSA and the Navy - both of which are being treated as "transport services". It is 2000nm from Australia to Indonesia and 38nm from Indonesia they start calling for the Australian taxi service to pick them up? AMSA is not a taxi transport service !

Mike | 30 July 2013  

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