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Border Protection's selective rescue


The 97 who vanishedDisturbing evidence is emerging of moral confusion and a propensity to hide embarrassing facts, within Australia's Border Protection Command system, on its obligations to protect lives of people on suspected illegal entry vessels (SIEVs) passing through Australia's northern maritime surveillance areas.

A powerful investigative report by Natalie O'Brien led the Sydney Sun-Herald's 'Extra' lift-out section on Sunday (a shorter version of the article is online in The Age). O'Brien set out a convincing case, assembled from many grieving relatives in Australia, that a boat which left Indonesia on 13 November 2010 with 97 passengers on board, never reached Christmas Island.

None of the passengers has been located, despite exhaustive enquiries in all relevant refugee care and detention agencies in both countries. We must assume the boat was lost at sea with no survivors.

The Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O'Connor advised George Newhouse, a lawyer representing the families in Australia, that:

Neither Border Protection Command nor the Australian Maritime Safety Authority have any information relating to a venture that matches the details of your correspondence.

The Minister's office did not offer to make any further enquiries.

At the same time, Border Protection Command (a joint interagency command comprising ADF, AFP and Customs elements) faces two public enquiries — a coroner's inquest in Perth and a Parliamentary Joint Select Committee enquiry in Canberra — into the shipwreck of SIEV 221 at Christmas Island on 14 December 2010, drowning about 50 people.

I wrote an initial comment in Eureka Street on 19 December 2010 and have made submissions to both enquiries. My concerns on this complex issue require a bit of reading and thought. In sum, I believe the following propositions to be true.

Many SIEV boats — small wooden ocean fishing boats, with motors and essential navigational aids — come to Australia from Indonesia. Relatives in Australia usually know from phone calls when boats are on the way.

Most arrive safely under their own steam, usually in the vicinity of Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef, one to three days' motoring from Indonesian departure points. These are short, normally safe crossings unless the boats are overloaded, defective or encounter exceptionally bad weather. Over 220 such boats have officially been listed as arriving since 2001.

BPC prefers, for reasons of safety, law and public image, to intercept SIEV boats at sea in a zone 12–24 miles offshore. A public impression is nurtured that SIEV boats are detected at sea by BPC vessels or aircraft, visually or using shipboard or airborne radar, and that these small wooden boats can sometimes be hard to find in the vast seas to our north, especially in bad weather.

Despite a 99-plus per cent safe SIEV arrival record, it suits Government, Opposition and some refugee activists to foster a public myth that these crossings are highly dangerous, when all known facts indicate they are normally quite safe and successful.

Boats are well enough equipped and crewed for these voyages, and BPC has access to reliable information on where they are heading. Meeting them on arrival is a routine professional process of interpreting what BPC calls 'cueing data and intelligence', and positioning BPC assets accordingly.

The Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN), a land-based system for radar surveillance of 9 million square km of Australia's northern maritime approaches, is designed to detect every kind of aircraft or vessel passing through this vast region. The system undergoes constant improvement. It was modified some 12 years ago to improve its detection capability for people smuggling boats.

JORN, as described by senior RAAF commanders, is the 'tripwire' in Australia's northern surveillance system. There is nowhere to hide from the Jindalee system, because its radar 'sees' a boat from above, bouncing signals off the ionosphere. One may safely surmise that most detections of incoming SIEV boats over the past 12 years were triggered by initial JORN-based data traces. 

The Government and BPC find it politically expedient to try to hide the existence of JORN. To admit JORN's major role in detection and interception of SIEVs would bring into question BPC's claims that it has no radar information on SIEV 221 during its two-day voyage in December 2010 from Indonesia to Christmas Island, or on the boat that left Indonesia on 14 November 2010 whose passengers have never been heard from since.

I do not believe JORN was switched off, or that its technology could have failed to detect these boats. But, in the long chains of data-interpretation and decision-making within the organisationally complex border protection system, there is much scope for human error or misjudgement.

While the BPC system continues to obfuscate and to avoid giving straight answers at every level of public response, suspicion grows that something quite unpleasant is being hidden from us in respect of the loss of these two boats. I see no national security reason for this.

The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service submission (no 8) to the parliamentary inquiry, apparently submitted on behalf of BPC, does not mention JORN at all (though JORN appears once as a glossary entry, suggesting it may be addressed in a confidential attachment), and the tone of the submission is decidedly defensive.

I fear that there may be people within BPC whose disposition is to 'rescue by choice' — to assist SIEV boats which have signalled their distress at sea, but to look away in cases where there are doubts as to whether boats entered the surveillance zone or may have turned back to Indonesia.

In my book on the SIEV X, I asked how hard BPC tries to find and help SIEV boats in possible distress that it believes are unlikely to arrive at their Australian destinations. It is time for parliamentarians who are serious about protecting human life at sea to ask the same question.

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

Topic tags: asylum seekers, SIEV X, Christmas Island, vanished, Natalie O'Brian, Minister for Home Affairs, JORN



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Existing comments

I can't believe that any Australian or Australian authority would deliberately not help any boat, whether illegal or not, that was in trouble, in distress or missing. I am sure that as Australians we would try to our very utmost to save lives in jeopardy.

Trent | 10 May 2011  

Interesting and thought provoking - thanks.

Ashlea | 10 May 2011  

Thank God for people like Tony Kevin whose research is based on humanitarian concerns. Hopefully his investigations will lead to an offical enquiry on why the 97 people perished at sea when it is more than likely their boat had been detected.

Maureen Strazzari | 10 May 2011  

With no evidence you accuse the people of Australia who have the thankless task of leaving home to spend long periods of time trying to protect these people who chose risk over waiting of murder .Shame

john crew | 10 May 2011  

What an insult to the men who work in the area of search and rescue.

pat | 10 May 2011  

Here we go again! It is so easy to blame our hard working Border Protection people. It is so easy to blame these people for the death of travellers trying to come and live in Australia. The fact remains that people smugglers and their associates in Australia are to blame for every single death at sea. It is so easy to blame others and to profit from the misery. The losers are people in refugee camps waiting over a decade to find a country. The losers are people using the services of people smugglers when they find out that they are unable to get a “refugee status” on their arrival and have to return. The losers are people helping their relatives with money to try to come to Australia to find out that the relatives died on their way here. The winners are people smugglers and their supporters. There is not much difference between slave traders during centuries gone past and supporters of people smuggling in 2011. Both are shameful and hypocritical.

Beat Odermatt | 10 May 2011  

There is a recognized legal procedure for dealing with documents and other evidence that the government wishes to withhold on security grounds. It is not sufficient for public servants and other functionaries simply to black out evidenc in documents they wish to withhold. A properly supported application needs to be made to the court before whom the issue srises and it must make a decision that the security grounds are made out. A similiar procedure should be available to a parliamentary enquiry.Even where there are security grounds for withholding the publication of evidence, there are often procedures for receiving the evidence in a way that protects national security.

I do not know whether any consideration was given to those matters in earlier coronial and parliamentary enquiries into lost vessels carrying refugees. In any event,a tough stand on such issues needs to be taken in the present enquiries.

jl trew | 10 May 2011  

This article may demonstrate the truism that we believe what we want to believe. Some may never accept the horrifying thought that officials of our own nation could callously or at best detachedly select which missions they actually execute; others may be keen to accept the idea. The difference will no doubt reflect the desire of each group. But some may conclude that though possible they don't think it prudent to simply accept Tony's conclusions without further corroboration of some kind. That sounds reasonable, in which case, one ought not then simply accept what the politicians say either. This whole refugee issue is looking and sounding - in our politicians' voices - shabbier and more dubious by the day. Time to place them under relentless scrutiny and start adding up the dots.

Then of course, there is always the bottom line of, irrespective of whether BPC is carrying out operations by expediency, how are going to regard the deaths and incarceration of fellow human beings who are no better or worse than us?

Stephen Kellett | 10 May 2011  

Most SIEV detections are triggered by initial JORN-based data traces, as interpreted and processed by RAAF technical experts at Edinburgh and Williamtown. This data is then correlated with other data, e.g. human intelligence of departures, and shipborne or airborne local radar or visual readings nearer to arrivsl areas. Thus, BPC 'cueing' narrows down SIEV tracking to 'cones' of most likely approach to destinations. Boats thst don't reach these cones, eg break down, lose their way, or founder in storms, won't be 'tracked' by BPC, even if there was strong human intelligence of departure and JORN traces of their movement across high seas.

This is BPC's dirty secret. So they pretend that JORN does not exist or is unimportant to their work. It is shameful, but ordinary ADF, AFP and Customs people working in border protection vessels would not know about it. Only a few senior ADF people in Edinburgh, Williamtown, Darwin and Canberra might know of this cueing system, that results on rare occasions in easily avoidable deaths. Through JORN, BPC could see everything; but it chooses to look only in certain areas. This doesn't explain why BPC did not track SIEV221 - which was in an arrival cone.

tony kevin | 10 May 2011  

It is so much easier to blame the messenger than to look into the message. But good on Tony to keep trying to find answers. Yes, it would be painful to learn that not all vessels in danger might benefit from the same priority of rescue. Yachties in distant southern seas have been rescued, at great cost and sometimes with very ungracious words to say about our Navy. Some SIEV vessels vanish without a trace in les challenging waters. The disappearance of the SIEV X in particular left so many unanswered questions; it is difficult to avoid thinking that some facts are being protected. I, and many others, deserve to know as this is done in our names.

Eveline Goy | 10 May 2011  

Trent, when the Australian crew on the immigration boat the Maru Sala made 137 calls to the coast guard in Queensland, the cops in Queensland and all other essential services to help them no-one went and 5 Australian citizens drowned.

Why then do you believe we would bother to rescue refugees that are hated by the pollies and half the population.

I am not one of the refugee advocates who whine that the trip is dangerous because almost everyone gets here quite safely and the survivors on the wreck said it was a very strong boat.

I put a submission to the joint parliamentary committee telling them what the problem was and who they will blame.

As with the SIEVX, the deaths just before the 2001 election of two Fatimas and others the result of the inquiry will be that the people were responsible for their own deaths because they paid their own way to Australia and that seems to be a crime.

Marilyn Shepherd | 11 May 2011  

to Marilyn Shepherd You wrote:"I am not one of the refugee advocates who whine that the trip is dangerous because almost everyone gets here quite safely and the survivors on the wreck said it was a very strong boat."
I cannot believe that somebody can be so cold and cruel like you. It may be ok for the majority, but what about the "minority" which died an awful death at sea? In contrast, ALL legal refugees arriving legally have made it alive to Australia! The difference is the loss of life, but it seems if it is not yours, you don't care. As long the people smuggler and their supporters in Australia get their share.

To stop people smugglers means that lives will be saved!

Beat Odermatt | 11 May 2011  

Thank you Tony for a most informative article. I believe your scepticism regarding the transparency of Border Protection Command's operations is justified. While, as some comments have pointed out, we can be assured that those employed by the command are dedicated to protecting boat people there is always the chance that they may slip up, either by negligence or otherwise, with disastrous consequences. Government's efforts to hide or put positive spin on such events is well documents. It is not a matter of accusing people in this case, but a question of openness of government. One only has to view John Pilger's film "The War You Don't See" on his website to realise the lengths Governments will go to to hide unpleasant facts from their constituents. Let us hope that what might be revealed in this case is not another disaster.

tony Santospirito | 11 May 2011  

Beat, the alternative to the trip for most is death and it is not up to me to say that people should stay and die rather than take the risk.

The risk was far greater in 1844 but my great grandparents fled Silesia anyway and got here on a boat.

To claim that it is cold of me to say people have the choice and the right to save their lives is better than your saying year in and year out that it is "safer" to stay in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Marilyn Shepherd | 11 May 2011  

Thank you Tony. I was not aware of the existence of JORN and I am sure I am not alone. Its existence makes sense and now invites me to question more closely what I hear and read rather than reacting emotiviely to the plight of our refugees.

Rosalie Toner | 13 May 2011  

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