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Did Australian authorities do enough to try to save asylum seeker lives?


Asylum seeker rescue at seaWe now have another distressing and perplexing case of possible Australian failure to use intelligence information to save lives in one or two (it is still not clear) asylum seeker boat sinkings in the southern Sunda Strait, on 10 and possibly 12 April. The boat (or boats) was on route to Christmas Island, sent by a people smuggler.

I have studied and cross-referenced 12 available Australian media reports — AAP, ABC, SMH/Age, News Limited, and SBS, dated between 12 and 14 April. These are the main unresolved questions at time of writing this essay. More clarifications may, or may not, emerge in coming days.

The case raises similar questions to three of the fatal incidents I analysed in my 2012 book Reluctant Rescuers — two boats that went missing in the Sunda Strait area in 2009 and 2010, and the Barokah which foundered off south-eastern Java in December 2011 — and two later boats that sank in June 2012.

There are two conflicting versions of when the boat sank last week.

First, AMSA briefed media on Friday 12 April that it had informed its Indonesian counterpart BASARNAS that 'a people-smuggling vessel may have sunk in or near the Sunda Strait around 3am AEST today' (Friday 12 April — i.e., midnight 11/12 April, local time), and that 'some passengers may have been rescued by a fishing vessel'.

Michael Bachelard (in Jakarta) and Bianca Hall reported in Fairfax on 13 April that an AMSA spokeswoman said 'yesterday' (12 April) that 'they had been informed by another agency, which she would not name, that the boat needed assistance'. AMSA says it told BASARNAS all it knew. But BASARNAS complains that, because AMSA did not give it any search coordinates, BASARNAS could not undertake any search. It did not do so.

Second, there is a separate, quite well-based, stream of media reporting from 12 April on, of a reported sinking in the same area at around 11am local time on Wednesday 10 April — a full 37 hours before the event reported by AMSA. This reporting stems from a 29-year old survivor Mr Hashimi who appears to have been directly interviewed on 12 April in Bogor, where he was recovering, by Bachelard for Fairfax and by Karlis Salna for AAP.

Hashimi told them the boat had travelled for nine hours before it sank. He said there had been 72 Hazara Afghans on board, of whom 14 survived for 24 hours in the water by linking hands, before being picked up by local fishermen from Sukabumi, a town in West Java. Six people were known to have died, and 52 were missing.

So did one or two boats sink in the southern Sunda Strait last week? AMSA has issued no clarification or detail on its reported possible sinking around midnight on Thursday night, and no survivors have come forward to confirm this time frame. On the other hand, the Hashimi story seems factually detailed and credible enough.

Could AMSA have given BASARNAS 'misleading information', as Bachelard and Hall report a BASARNAS official Mr Firdauzi alleged on Saturday? Could AMSA have itself received incorrect information as to the time of sinking from the agency which it declined to name? I assume this could have been an Australian human intelligence (AFP or ASIS) or signals intelligence (ADF) collection agency, or possibly the PSIAT, the People Smuggling Intelligence Analysis Team located in the Department of Customs and Border Protection. 

Underlying this is a second big question: did the unnamed agency that briefed AMSA on the event itself know the coordinates of where the boat might have been when it got into trouble, or was last tracked? I know from my book research that it is difficult to extract from Australian officials public admissions that they are usually able through intelligence means to know with some accuracy where boats are located at sea during their unauthorised voyages to Christmas Island. Yet it is clear from the interception history that they have access to such information.

If the unnamed agency did have these coordinates, and yet did not pass them to AMSA to pass to BASARNAS, it could be complicit in the deaths of up to 58 people last week.

We need to know more about this tragedy. It is time for Customs Minister Jason Clare and his Head of Customs Department Michael Pezzullo, possibly joined by Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor who has so far declined to comment, to give a media conference clarifying what their agencies knew about this distress at sea, when they knew it, and whether the agencies then acted properly on that knowledge in a timely and useful way, in order to try to save human lives in peril of drowning at sea. At the moment, there are more questions than answers.

A four minute ABC video interview with George Roberts online on Saturday afternoon 13 April concludes with this very sad observation:

'All we have been able to find out so far — unless things have changed since late last night — AMSA wasn't helping yet or Australian authorities weren't helping yet and Indonesia hadn't launched its own search. It seems to be the same stand-off we had last year where Australia knew there was a problem, Indonesia was incapable of being able to help, and as a result people are left in the water for hours on end.'

Surely Australian ministers cannot leave so many deaths up in the air like this? There is an accountability obligation on their agencies. 

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

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, safety at sea, asylum seekers, Christmas Island



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Existing comments

Thank you, Mr Kevin, for once again affirming the humanity of those lost at sea, and ensuring they are not forgotten. Would that our religious leaders from all faiths challenge their respective congregations, the Government and the Opposition loudly and often for a bipartisan and regional approach to preventing such tragedies.
Patricia R | 16 April 2013

I'm worried now. I think I might have been responsible for this one. Or maybe it was the Australian mining companies.
john frawley | 16 April 2013

John Frawley, all nations have a duty to save those in trouble at sea. All nations for every person in trouble at sea, including us and for us. If we have mariners in trouble at sea we better hope they behave better than we do in the countries who are asked to save us. We are talking about human lives, why make flip remarks about mining companies?
Marilyn | 16 April 2013

Dear Marilyn, I have always admired your selfless dedication to the plight of refugees and, after spending 50 yrs of my life as a doctor, I am appalled by the unnecessary loss of life that comes with the exploitation of these poor people by money making grubs predominantly domiciled in Indonesia. As you know, Indonesia passed laws in April 2011 making people smuggling illegal but patently has done nothing to police those laws, almost certainly because local officials, the police and the army make too much money from the process. When lives are lost on Indonesia's watch,in Indonesian waters, I take great exception to placing the blame on Australia and its agencies as today's article attempts to do. I saw recently that the legal costs of prosecuting one porr
john frawley | 16 April 2013

Dear Marilyn continued (I hit the wrong button (old age probably) I read recently that the cost of legal prosecution of one of these poor villagers employed for a mere pittance to skipper these boats from Indonesia is $250,000 (not a great deal of humanity forthcoming from the legal boys there) and that the mandatory three year imprisonment costs the taxpayer some $240,000. When we consider the costs of detention, government support etc for the hapless refugees the cost of one boat to the Australian txpayer is phenomenal. I have no answer to the dilemma but It would be very interesting to see what happened if someone in government in this country had the guts to deduct the cost of each boat from Indonesia from Austrakia's aid to Indonesia program. I would be prepared to put my house on it that the boats and loss of life would soon stop. Then the refugees might find refuge without the risk to life and costs that they currently face. I get sick and tired of Australia having to cop the misapprobrium that attends every disaster. I think the time is well overdue for apologists such as some contributors to ES either put up or shut up - and, I assure you, Marilyn, I am not referring to you here. Happy days Marilyn - you are a great advocate for these suffering people.
john frawley | 16 April 2013

No-one is preying on refugees in Indonesia, they go looking for transport and there is precisely nothing illegal about that. Do you expect them to stay jailed for years on end not able to work or go to school or have any sort of life rather than pay to be safe and protected? The whole debate around so-called smugglers is a lie. But how do you feel about the 20,000 kids a day who die of starvation while pretending to care about a few who drowned? The Indonesian crews are paid about $60 each, and that is zero to do with us.
Marilyn | 17 April 2013

I have been in touch with the Head of the Department of Customs and Border Protection on this and have received an interim reply from his office. I look forward to a substantive reply which I will share with Eureka Street readers when it comes.
tony kevin | 06 May 2013

If Australian advocates are in mobile phone contact with asylum seekers prior to departure and during crossing and are aware of passenger numbers,departure points etc and continue phone contact when signal allows then they are equally responsible for the deaths of so many including the impoverished Indonesian crew who are very rarely mentioned. AMSA,BASARNAS, the organisers and Ian Rintoul should all be held to account at the coronial enquiry.
Sally Black | 22 June 2013


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