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Australia's ad hoc refugee rescue costs many lives


When distress calls come in from asylum-seeker boats, Australia's current policy is to rescue by choice – in other words, on a case by case basis.

Some of these calls are from areas quite close to the Indonesian shoreline. Some are closer to Christmas Island. 

To its credit, Australia’s border protection system usually rescues asylum seekers who have made distress calls from the Indonesian search and rescue zone. This zone includes all the international waters surrounding and north of Christmas Island. 

The responsible Australian authorities include the Border Protection Command (BPC), under Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare, and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), under Transport Minister Anthony Albanese. 

Occasionally, they fail to respond correctly to such distress calls. On these occasions they pass them to the Indonesian search and rescue authority BASARNAS and wait to see what happens. They do this knowing that BASARNAS has neither the maritime rescue capacity, nor the policy inclination, to rescue refugee boats reporting distress in international waters while trying to reach Australia.

When BPC/AMSA and BASARNAS play chicken with people’s lives in this way, boats sink and people die. We now know that this happened both with the Barokah, which foundered near Java in December 2011 with the drowning of up to 200 asylum seekers. It also occurred with the boat that capsized last month, on 21 June. In this case, Australia had known of distress calls for two days but had simply informed BASARNAS and then watched and waited. 

Australia took charge of that rescue only after the boat was seen to have capsized on 21 June. An estimated 90 people drowned. These people could have been saved if Australia had mounted its own rescue in response to the distress messages phoned in on 19 and 20 June. We also know there had been a comparable incident in October 2009 (detailed in my new book Reluctant Rescuers).  

When such tragedies occur, embarrassed Australian ministers and officials are economical with the facts. They try to blur public understanding of the legal status of the waters in question, obscuring questions of which government was most responsible for the loss of lives.  

The public is often told – inaccurately – that such tragedies are happening ‘in Indonesian waters’. Indonesian waters actually extend only 19 kilometres from the Indonesian coast. And, anywhere at sea, response to distress calls is properly the responsibility of the nearest country or ships with capacity to rescue.

The fact that Australian authorities have not always responded to distress calls promptly and correctly should concern us all, regardless of our views on asylum-seeker processing policy. Australia’s rescue-at-sea protocols and practices should have nothing to do with policy debates in Australia about asylum-seeker processing choices. Maritime rescue authorities should simply get on with their job of saving lives in peril at sea.

Focusing in more detail on the December 2011 Barokah foundering, we note that the new Minister for Home Affairs Jason Clare then announced that a boat had capsized the day before, 40 nautical miles off the coast of Java.  The search and rescue effort was being coordinated by Indonesia. AMSA was now working with Indonesian authorities. The minister said:

The information about this boat and the information about it capsizing off the coast of Java was provided by Indonesian authorities to Australian authorities.

Yet on 5 July 2012, the Minister disclosed

We received calls from a vessel in distress last year in December that was very close to the Indonesian shoreline. You might remember that vessel in December just off the coast of Indonesia where two hundred people drowned.

There was worse to come, as Natalie O’Brien reported in yesterday’s Fairfax Sunday papers, on Australia’s refusal to co-ordinate the search and rescue for the Barokah despite pleas for help from Indonesia. 

Documents obtained by Fairfax under freedom of information reveal that AMSA told BASARNAS that it was up to them to lead the rescue effort into this major maritime tragedy, which resulted in the biggest loss of life (up to 200) since the SIEV X in 2001 in which 353 people drowned. 

A spokeswoman for AMSA said the decision about the Barokah was made because the boat was inside the Indonesian search and rescue zone. She said the agency offered support for planning and drift modelling. The boat broke up in high seas about 40 nautical miles south of Prigi Beach in Java. Most of the fewer than 50 survivors were rescued by a passing fishing boat.

The documents, obtained from the Department of Customs and Border Protection, also reveal that Customs officials provided a different account of the story to Senate estimates briefings in February. Customs did not reveal AMSA's refusal to coordinate the rescue, instead saying that Indonesia's search and rescue agency BASARNAS had 'initially declined an offer from AMSA to assist with the search and rescue effort'.

O’Brien also reported further official responses to her questions about Barokah: 

A spokeswoman for the maritime authority denied there had been any direction from government about its response to distressed asylum seeker boats, maintaining its policy is consistent and in accordance with the relevant conventions and international practices. 'The operational circumstances may vary from incident to incident and it is these operational factors that shape the actual response,' a spokeswoman said. 

Meanwhile a spokesman for the Federal Minister for Transport, Anthony Albanese, said that where an incident occurs in another country's search and rescue region, AMSA would normally act to provide assistance, rather than lead the response itself. 'The requirement for coordination of effort becomes more compelling with incidents close to the Indonesian coast than it is further offshore towards Christmas Island' he said.

These are disturbingly clear official admissions that Australian decisions on how to respond to distress calls from asylum-seeker boats are taken ad hoc. Australia either chooses to rescue, or not: rescue by choice. Fortunately, most of the time our border protection system chooses to rescue.  

With regard to the 21 June incident – in which 110 asylum seekers were rescued and 90 drowned – Marg Hutton documents what occurred in a well-researched lead article at sievx.com titled ‘Australia's Shameful Response to a Boat in Distress’. Michael Bachelard of The Age also deals with this.

The subsequent 27 June incident in which 123 asylum seekers were rescued and one to four were reported missing, had a happier outcomeSignificantly the Australian authorities acted promptly and correctly in this second incident.

A further incident on 4 July in which 164 asylum seekers were reported to have been transferred to safety aboard Australian Navy ships just hours after a distress call, due to Navy concerns about the seaworthiness of their boat, is now subject to questions about whether the distress call had been genuine. Asylum-seekers on this boat were accused of using the Navy ‘like the NRMA’. 

The Minister responded, properly, that Australian authorities had to treat every distress call as genuine and fully investigate it. I note also that. in this case, a decision was made by the responsible Navy commanders on the spot to rescue the people who had sent the distress call. 

That should surely be the end of the matter.    

Tony KevinTony Kevin, author of A Certain Maritime Incident – the sinking of SIEV X (2004) has just published a new book Reluctant Rescuers, available from leading bookshops or from the book website www.reluctantrescuers.com The above article answers questions pondered in Tony's December 2001 article on the Barokah: 'Questions surround latest asylum seeker boat disaster'

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, asylum seekers, search and rescue, refugees, border protection



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Existing comments

Yesterday I was chatting with a woman I know when the conversation turned to asylum seekers. She remarked on how terrible it was that they were sinking their own boats. It was a throw-away line. She had never entertained any doubt that it was a fact, something that everyone knows. I scraped my chin off the floor and did my best to gently challenge her. I pointed out that there was no proof that this had ever happened, and that just because people say things like this doesn't make them true. I also had the presence of mind to point out that it would make no sense to sink a boat and run the awful risk of drowning. Unfortunately, I was so shocked that I wasn't able, on the spot, to be more lucid. Afterwards, I wondered how the conversation might have gone if she hadn't been such a nice woman. If she had become angry, or hadn't had the capacity to acknowledge that she might be mistaken, I would not have been sufficiently confident and informed to deal with the situation. This issue is so fraught that there seems no clear solution, nor can there ever be, while we're accepting the lies as though they were facts, and as long as people like me are content to remain fuzzy, uninformed, and unwilling to think things through. I've been waiting for Eureka Street to address this issue. Thanks for your article, and thanks also to Aloysious Mowe.

Kate Ahearne | 09 July 2012  

There are many people at fault in the loss of lives through the sinking of these vessels. The whole system of people smuggling is fraught with danger for the passengers and crew in these endeavours. Someone must be held accountable for allowing such unseaworthy boats to sail with a human cargo at all. This is a matter to be policed and investigated by the Indonesian authorities and brought to an end with strong penalties to be incurred on those who use these unsuitable boats to smuggle people for profit and greed. Some of these vessels may sink immediately and others may not sink for some time making resue hard for those boats who sink quickly. Finding these vessels is hard sometimes for the rescuers as well. I can find no fault on the Australian side when it comes to rescue but it is a bit much to expect them to go racing into Indonesian territory to rescue ships when distress calls are made.regardless of what the Indonesian authorities are doing themselves to effect a resuce. If only all the people who are critical of the government for it's policies on illegal immigrants were to also complain to the government about the policy of allowing the huge numbers of daily murders of innocent children in the womb in Australia, they may help bring an end to the most barbaric law in Australia.

Trent | 09 July 2012  

When a person gets on a boat which is obviously faulty, that person is taking an irresponsible risk in going out to sea. To take women and children on that journey, knowing what the consequences could be, is homocidal. Expecting that another nation will rescue you and expend money in doing so is foolish and yet, those are the expectations of people who break the law in entering this country and have assumptions we will do the right thing when they are doing the wrong thing? What am I missing?

Shirley McHugh | 09 July 2012  

The following is my unpublishd letter to The Age... The federal Minister for Home Affairs, Jason Clare, must do more than simply “foreshadow a shake- up of the policy” governing the rescue of refugees at sea given the shocking revelation that “Australia spurned (a) boat distress call”, The Sunday Age, 8/7) that led to the loss of some 200 lives when a boat sank off Indonesia in December, ostensibly because Australia didn’t want to make the first move. He should urge fellow Ministers (Defence, Navy & Customs) to take a “be prepared” stance, by pre-positioning “assets” near or in Indonesian waters, with the pre-approval of the Djakarta government. The dreadful national shame of this revelation is underlined by the efforts to keep the details secret, that it had to be revealed through Freedom of Information documents, which could well be more difficult to obtain in the future if the government succeeds in its media control efforts. Indonesia has made it crystal clear that it “is hopelessly under-equipped for ocean rescue”, and especially in leading such responses. Worse, the signs are that Canberra knew of a sea tragedy in the making through its “People Smuggling Intelligence Analysis Team”, supported by informants and the Australian Federal Police (AFP), but chose to stand idly by. “Gifting” four unwanted, unsaleable and yet to be refurbished Hercules aircraft to Indonesia, as Prime Minister Gillard did last week, was a gift to make one blush. Brian Haill 1/10, Chatterley Court, Frankston, Vic. Tel (03) 97709210

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 09 July 2012  

Wouldn't it be wonderful if only just once the concerned social justice industry could level a little bit of the carping criticisms at the Indonesians who fail to patrol their own waters or to effect rescues at sea in their own waters, particularly when in April 2011 their mickey mouse parliament passed laws making people smuggling illegal in Indonesia. These laws have apparently yet to be ratified by the president's imprimatur. I would be prepared to wager that these laws would be very smartly implemented if Australia removed a solid slab of aid to Indonesia for every boat we rescued in Indonesian waters and the cost of every boatload originating in Indonesia. Unlikely that the social justice industry in this country would work towards such a solution, however, or any other solution for that matter which would remove their purpose for being. For goodness sake, let's not solve the problem. the bleeding hearts will be out of a job if such a thing happened and the pollies would lessen their point scoring opportunities. "Poor fella my country" someone once said.

john frawley | 09 July 2012  

Sadly there is heaps of misinformation coming from all sides in this unfortunate saga. Kate's experience is one I have also heard and had to try and correct too. It is a bit rich to expect a realtively poorly resourced nation like Indonesia to police the smuggling rackets , let alone patrol the waters around their thousands of islands. They do not have the facilities to adequately house these people. I can understand their view that is best that the Refugees leave the country as soon as possible as they simply can not deal with them. Maybe the piority should be to address the issues prompting these people to flee their homelands in the first place.Trent, the issue of abortion is totally seperate to this debate and quite irrelevant .Sadly it is an issue not being addressed by our society either!

Gavin | 09 July 2012  

I am dismayed at the 'Christian' response from a couple of the writers commenting this morning. Shirley McHugh asks, 'What am I missing?' I think you're missing the point, Shirley. We spend so much of our precious lives, and abuse our intellects, finding fault with others without stopping to wonder what our own responsibilities might be. If Shirley had firsthand experience of the horrors that so many refugees are fleeing, she could not have made such remarks. Perhaps it is, as a dear friend remarked yesterday, simply a failure of the imagination. It appears that there are people who honestly believe that most refugees are simply looking for a better lifestyle. Don't believe it, Shirley. It's a lie. I have worked in North Africa and the Middle East, and can assure you of the desperation in some of the communities I have lived amongst. For so many, it is not irresponsible to give up everything they have and put themselves and their children on leaky boats. It would be irresponsible if they didn't. And as for the word 'illegal', let's never forget that not all laws are just. They are not handed down by God, but in Australia, at least, they are passed by votes in Parliament, and not always for the noblest of reasons.

Kate Ahearne | 09 July 2012  

The refugee problems are a global problems, and will be resolved only with a global solution, when the whole world matures enough to act responsibly, and ease the need of people to flee in terror from their homeland. Fortunately we have an exemplar in the human body, where trillions of cells, each with a life of its own, all combine for the good of the whole and of each.Each cell lives, grows, reproduces, and dies, and combines with others to form limbs and organs, analogous to countries of the world. Only when (A)countries like China and Russia solve their fears of regime change, and citizens of countries like Australia allow compassion to overcome their distaste of minor inconveniences caused by diverting aid to desperate people, and so take the pressure off politicians who are overly concerned with winning enough votes to hold or win power will we, as a nation, be able to make a responsible response to desperate situations. Until then we should each try to find some way to at least speak up about addressing the problem.

Robert Liddy | 09 July 2012  

The people smugglers must be "laughing all the way to the bank". The only way to stop the traffic is to have a system whereby refugees from south east Asia and elswhere can report to legitimate agencies who can process them quickly and not have to wait for years on a waiting list and stay in camps where human rights are ignored. This needs co-operation between United Nations agencies and receiving counties to increase their quotas of immigrants. This is already happening behind the scenes. We must co-ooperate with Malaysia and Indonesia and other South East Asian counties. We must not bully them as we did in the past

john ozanne | 09 July 2012  

People smuggling in some ways is more dangerous and lucrative then slave trading ever was. Slave traders received their payments when slaves arrived in healthy conditions at their destinations. If slaves died during the journey, the traders missed out on profits. With people smuggling there is little incentive to deliver the customers to the destinations alive as payment has already been made. It is actually cheaper to scuttle the boats shortly after departure as it safes them the cost of food and fuel. The people smuggling industry still has strong supporters and beneficiaries in Australia and some of the most shameless supporters have no shame trying to blame the Governments of Australia and Indonesia for the death of asylum seeker. It is like blaming hospitals and medical staff for failing to save the lives of drunk divers.

Beat Odermatt | 09 July 2012  

Thanks for another splendidly informative piece, Tony Kevin.

Joe Castley | 09 July 2012  

My very intelligent daughter had a bit of a rant about Indonesian waters but when told the truth conceded that we have to rescue people no matter who they are. The sickest part of this is the deranged debate claiming we have to send people who don't drown away to some other country in breach of the law because some drowned - they only drowned because of us. And our media are largely complicit with the stupid lies of people smuggling boats - no-one is baing smuggled anywhere, refugees are being forced by circumstances to pay for any transport they can find, it is all out in the open and it is quite legal but our brainwashed, brain dead media will not for one minute concede that fact And so their vilification of people also results in deaths. The reality is anyone is allowed to sail anywhere they like on the oceans without any interference from us but we have to rescue promptly anyone in distress.

Marilyn | 09 July 2012  

Yes Beat the evil people smugglers do make a fortune and we don't do a thing about it. We jail the victims of sex slavery, we ignore the slave labour brought here by rich companies until the unions find out, and we are one of the worst countries in the world for lack of laws to protect victims of trafficking and slavery But since people smuggling is in law the forced movement of migrants across borders for ongoing gain, exploitation and slavery what does that have to do with refugees making a choice to travel to safety? As it is none of our business who people pay to be safe what are you on about?

Marilyn | 09 July 2012  

To MARILYN: Yes, it is our business which way our taxes re spent. I am sure that 99.99 of tax payers don't want people smugglers and their supporters to get any of our hard earned taxes. I fully understand why people smuggler love the current situation an are not worried about people dying as long the money comes in and as long they can blame others.

Beat Odermatt | 09 July 2012  

While people smugglers are at the centre of these boat tragedies, they are not the reason for our collective moral position on asylum seekers. By concentrating on people smugglers we are, once again, blaming others for our moral dilemmas. There is an assumption that there is a groundswell of public support for us to receive asylum seekers with open hands. The truth is that xenophobia runs deep in our veins. For a country of asylum seekers, we've certainly forgotten its tragic origins. PS What shirley McHugh is missing is good old humanity. You know, that 'thing' that keeps us civilised?

Alex Njoo | 09 July 2012  

Asylum seekers are not people smugglers and all the boat crews get is a prison cell, Beat..

Marilyn | 09 July 2012  

I thought previous foreign affais minister Alex Downer interviewed on Lateline had an interesting aspect. "We're sending our young soldiers over to Afghanistan to help provide stability and security"' (at a cost to Australian families), and further states: "I can't help but think our young people are training to go there and their young people are coming here in boats". "Maybe they would be better advised to do everything they can to try and support their own country". Sounds logical to me. The transcript available.

L Newington | 10 July 2012  

To MARILYN You do know that the true beneficiaries of people smuggling are living respectable lives here in Australian. I agree with you that the boat crews are innocent victims as much as the asylum seekers. People smuggling is big money and big money is always attracting crooks the same way dung attracts flies.

Beat Odermatt | 10 July 2012  

They are not people smugglers.

Marilyn | 10 July 2012  

I can't for the life of me see why we need to demonise "people smugglers", as if they're the font and source of our current asylum seeker malaise. Rubbish! People smugglers are just entrepreneurs, earning a living, playing by the rules as these are set by our governments. Demand and supply. Heck, in the good old days, people smugglers who got refugees out of Nazi Germany or Iron Curtain regimes were lionised. What's changed? So what if they do it for a fee? Isn't it worth something to trade life in, say, Afghanistan, for life in Australia? I for one would willingly, without cavil, pay heaps to any capable agent not to have those circumstances reversed for me and my family, if it were a real threat. Moreover, despite our livid verbal attacks on them, we have by our current protocols actually incentivised people smugglers to 1. Encourage "refugees" to destroy their identity papers and 2. Dangerously get them onto boats that will get as far as Australian patrol vessels but appear to or actually founder, so that it's not feasible to send them back to Indonesia. Under Howard's "Pacific Solution", people-smuggling activity, with its attendant dangers for boat-people, flatlined. He didn't go around flapping his hands and frothing at the mouth over "evil" people-smugglers as our pathetic current overlords do. He just calmly changed the rules of the game. The "evil" smugglers reasonably responded. Which meant we could take on more genuine refugees we discern will be compatible with our truly blessed society. Alas, Rudd/Gillard/Greens had more high-sounding but ultimately inhumane plans. An entirely domestically-engineered problem.

HH | 13 July 2012  

Why is it that so many people think the transport is the story instead of the fact that we let people drown, we pervert our own laws and the story is the right to seek asylum.

Marilyn | 17 July 2012  

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