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Human lives Australia could have saved


Many of the 100 people who were drowned in the sea near Indonesia last week could have been saved.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) needed to have immediately launched a search and rescue (SAR) operation. This would have involved nearby Border Protection Command (BPC) sea and air surveillance resources (HMAS Maitland and the Customs Dash 8 aircraft stationed at Christmas Island), as soon as it received distress calls early last Wednesday morning.

This is another case of reprehensible search and rescue negligence by the AMSA/Customs and Border Protection system. A human emergency on this scale, clearly reported by two distress phone calls to AMSA, should never have been passed to the less capable Indonesian BASARNAS to handle. 

It is an even more reprehensible Australian system failure, coming so soon after the Houston Panel had reminded the system of its international law obligations, under three international legal Conventions governing rescue at sea to which Australia is signatory, for search and rescue at sea in response to distress calls.

By bumping this emergency to BASARNAS, and then returning to border protection business as usual for a full wasted day, the Australian border security system left 100 people to die – as it had done previously on 15 December 2011 (with the foundered Barokah), and again on 19-21 June 2012. 

As previously, under ‘the presumption of regularity’, the mainstream media narrative has exonerated the Australian border security system from any serious questioning. An uncritical Australian media has again failed to ask the obvious questions of Australian ministers and responsible agencies. 

The timeline of Wednesday's sinking is already quite well established. Someone with a satellite mobile phone on the stricken boat made two distress calls to AMSA at 1.20 am (local time, 4.20 AEST) and 2.05 am (local time, 5.05 AEST) on Wednesday. The Minister for Home Affairs Jason Clare told media on 30 August that the boat had reported engine failure and that it was taking on water.

According to BASARNAS, AMSA informed BASARNAS and asked them to manage the search and rescue operation, just 11 minutes after the first distress call to AMSA, at 1.31 am (local time) Wednesday. At this time, according to BASARNAS, AMSA gave them the boat‘s exact location coordinates, eight nautical miles off the coast of Java

The public record is inconsistent here. According to Mr Clare, ‘in the second phone call, the person provided RCC with the vessel's location, approximately eight nautical miles south-west of Java’. Yet the Indonesians say that AMSA informed BASARNAS of the location coordinates (6 degrees 46.44, 105 degrees 05.15) at 1.31 am, just minutes after the first phone call.

Probably quite soon after the distress calls (but we do not yet know just when), the drifting engine-less boat filled with water and foundered. According to one survivor, Muhammad Zahir, ‘the boat capsized but stayed afloat for about six hours’. He said he was among perhaps 100 clinging to the upper deck after the boat capsized.

The boat finally sank in international waters south of Sunda Strait. The first six survivors were picked up very early on Thursday morning by a container ship, APL Bahrein, about 40 NM from Java. The captain of Bahrein told media that these survivors told him they had been in the water since about 7am Wednesday, local time. This is our best indicator so far of the time when the capsized hull finally sank, fully five hours after the two distress calls to AMSA. 

There would thus have been ample time following the two phone calls to AMSA for the Australian Customs Dash 8 surveillance aircraft to be tasked to fly from Christmas Island (around 200 NM away) to reach the last known location coordinates at first light (around 6 am) on Wednesday, locate the drifting boat or its capsized hull (both large conspicuous objects) from the air, and drop life rafts to survivors. 

Also, HMAS Maitland, the closest BPC response vessel on station northwest of Christmas Island to intercept incoming asylum-seeker boats, could have reached the search area not long after the Dash 8, had it been ordered to steam there in response to the distress calls.

Instead, AMSA simply passed the search and rescue responsibility to its Indonesian counterpart. The BASARNAS response on 29 August was tardy, hasty and ineffective. 

Meanwhile, for all of Wednesday, it was business as usual for the Department of Customs and Border Protection. BPC followed its normal border surveillance procedures. HMAS Maitland was busy intercepting a boat near Christmas Island.

On this day of nearby distress at sea, could not other interception arrangements have been made, freeing up HMAS Maitland to save lives? A Dash 8 made its usual daily ‘routine surveillance’ flight over the area north of Christmas Island. It started, Clare said, ‘at approximately 4pm Eastern Standard Time’.

Clare said the aircraft searched an area ‘where it was calculated that a vessel might be if it had continued to motor or drift towards Christmas Island’. But Customs would have known that the powerless vessel or its capsized hull was drifting westwards. The Dash 8 saw nothing, because it was surveilling the wrong area.

Clare says that ‘during this surveillance, AMSA obtained updated vessel location using commercially available satellite telephone positioning data’. No one has interrogated this important statement.

After Australia effectively took over the search and rescue operation from BASARNAS on Wednesday night, 54 survivors were located through Thursday over an area about 40 NM from Indonesia – see published AMSA map.’Incident Response 2012/5710 Refugee Vessel’. Ships were now searching an area where they had been advised to look, from Australian drift analysis and satellite telephone positioning data – a day too late.

Not all the criticism should be directed at BASARNAS for its ineffective search and rescue effort on Wednesday. It should also, and more so, be directed at AMSA and the Department of Customs and Border Protection for improperly and negligently passing the SAR responsibility to an agency they knew does not have the technical resources or organisation to handle it well. 

They would not have done this had the distress calls been made to AMSA from an Australian-flagged vessel carrying Australians.

The Rescue At Sea Convention, Safety of Life at Sea Convention, and UN Convention on Law of the Sea all say (in different words) that every State Party to these Conventions has a duty to render assistance, when it receives information that persons are in distress at sea.

Every State Party must require the master of a vessel flying its flag to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost, and to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress if informed of their need of assistance. State Parties shall ensure that assistance is provided to any person in distress at sea, regardless of the nationality or status of a person or the circumstances in which the person is found. Note that this duty applies anywhere at sea: the rescue obligation is not limited to a State party's own search and rescue region. 

The boat or its capsized hull would have rapidly drifted westwards, out of the Indonesian 12 NM territorial sea zone and into international waters south of Sunda Strait, during the five hours following the distress calls. AMSA and Australian signals intelligence would have certainly read exact coordinates for the two calls. They would also have been able to track the hull’s exact whereabouts through the ensuing five hours if the satellite mobile phone from which the distress calls were sent had been left switched on. There are many questions here.

Indonesia has none of these sophisticated resources and technologies which BPC uses – when it wants to – to locate and intercept incoming unauthorised boats. 

The 100-odd survivors clinging to the boat’s capsized hull were properly entitled under Australia’s international legal obligations to a fully resourced Australian search and rescue response to their two distress calls to AMSA.

Because AMSA and Customs botched Australia’s search and rescue responsibilities, up to 100 people died needlessly. To this point in time, the Australian people seem blissfully unaware of these facts. It is time our media started asking real questions. 

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

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



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Existing comments

not impressed whatsover you do to the least of my brothers that you do unto me. it is written. one day we have to answer to God seems as if that does not matter to some people on both sides of politics. enough said it makes me very sad

irena mangone | 04 September 2012  

Thanks for this report which illustrates another shameful episode of Australia's treatment of refugees. I am sure the Australian Maritime Safety Authority would have reacted differently if an English racing sailor was lost at sea. This is another example of Australian rascist culture. It also shows how pathetic is the Australian media coverage of news. The ABC news service is only interested in trivial and celebrity nonsense and has no interest in the humanity of refugees.

Mark Doyle | 04 September 2012  

People have to be responsible for their own actions. Why should any person elect to go to sea in an unsafe vessel. These people are already safe in Indonesia, so why do they want to come to Australia in such a dangerous manner. Don't blame the Australians who have to put their lives at risk to save these 'boat' people. About 300 lives a day are lost here in Australia by killing children in the womb. Why doesn't the author use his considerable energies to try and save the lives of the innocents in the womb. The boat people come here of their own free will and place others in danger by putting their own selfish interests first. They are responsible for their decisions to put to sea in unseaworthy boats, not others.

Trent | 04 September 2012  

For people who board these clapped out boats ( boats that belong to poor fishermen) to come to Australia and also knowing that many of these boats will not survive the distance...doesn't this informed the Australian govt and people that for these people, this way of coming to Australia, of fleeing persecution, is their last desperate attempt to find a safe place to live. So, as I recall the Tampa story of a Norwegian captain who followed the lore of the sea, I am disgusted with our govt and the flippant way they choose to respond to those in distress at sea. A mayday call from any racing yacht has always attracted VIP attention from our govt. Where is their humanity?

Jo dallimore | 04 September 2012  

Jo Dallimore, I despairingly ask the same questions as you have, only I'd go further with regard to that great moral blight upon Australia's history - the Tampa/children overboard episode, during which John Howard, Peter Reith and Philip Ruddock blatantly lied to the Australian electorate for now proven electoral advantage. They have set the ongoing Liberal/Labor tone of "deterence" ever since. As the wholly uninformed and inhumane comments of Trent show, unfortunately they have an all to eager audience amongst many, including the oh-so pious.

Michelle Goldsmith | 04 September 2012  

More blood on our hands. Well what's a life among so many. We let them drown because that will be a lesson to them not to come to Australia. We are so efficent at defending our borders, we have forgotten our humanity. We should have a program which is bringing in ethnic Hazaras. Then they might have a queue to wait in and not feel they have to brave the boats.

Bernadette Duffy | 04 September 2012  

Yes, and it was reprehensible that the people who took the fares from the asylum-seekers put them on a boat that would get them here safely. What is it with Tony Kevin that the he cannot find any fault with the people who supply the transport? Putting aside questions of the legality of the situation, is there not any moral obligation on those who accept money from the asylum-seekers to see that their customers arrive alive? Or do they only guarantee that the fare gets you half way and the Australian authorities will do the rest?

MJ | 04 September 2012  

Seriously Trent, you have not a jot of humanity do you? Must be a true product of the increased facism of Howards days.

Under the law of the sea it makes no difference if people boarded a clapped out boat and it sank, we must rescue them.

But in fact many have no choice and Indonesia is not going to the rescue of people they have already kicked out of their country now are they?

Tho add insult to injury to the survivors we lock them up in places like Curtin, out of reach of medical and legal help, we deny them the right to have lawyers at inquests and so on.

This group were illegally refouled to Indonesia - once they were aboard the Maitland they were our responsibility under the law and we broke that law again.

Australia has quickly become utterly lawless on the high seas and they are killing innocent people in a panic because Pakistan is kicking out millions of Afghans and some might come here.

So we will show them just how mean we can be and we will drown them.

Every refugee who has drowned in the last 11 years could have been saved, we simply chose as a nation not to do so.

Marilyn | 05 September 2012  

And you have to stop using the language of unauthorised, asylum seekers are authrorised by our laws to arrive here without prior permission.

Marilyn | 05 September 2012  

Thanks for these lively comments and thanks to Eureka Street Editors for the journal's sustsined interest in my work on this. There are seven negligent Australian search and rescue and major loss of life incidents now in the past three years - there had been only four when I wrote Reluctant Rescuers. Now we must add the sinking on 21 June, the lost boat on 29 June and the s8nking on 29 August . Theser three latest tragedies validate and strengthen the anslysis of the book.

For those who can bear any more on this topic, please watch my 6 minute interview on this ABC news story on 4 August on the Indonesia-Australia rescue at sea agreement. It is near the bottom.


Tony Kevin

tony kevin | 06 September 2012  

We have so much to distress us about the terrible and unnecessary loss of life of these people quite legitimately seeking our help. Trent's views add to the shame. Do you Trent, ever ask "what would Jesus ask of us?"

Mary Maraz | 06 September 2012  

Trent, you are entitled to your views, but please don't claim they are Christian views. Our Dear Lord taught that the good shepherd left behind the 99 sheep and risked all to search for the 1 sheep who was lost.

AURELIUS | 07 September 2012  

MJ, the passengers willingly pay the money, why do you deflect from the fact that we refuse to rescue people in distress.

Marilyn | 07 September 2012  

Can Any one tell me that what happened to those remaining 100 missing asylum seekers and their boats which sink off on 29 August 2012.they are found or still missing. And the rescue teams of AMSA and BASARNAS should not stop their rescue operation until they have not recovered or rescued those 100 missing asylum seekers.

Taimur Khan Bangash | 12 September 2012  

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