New maritime rescue failure leaves unanswered questions


On Friday, Fairfax Indonesia correspondent Michael Bachelard reported on another ordeal at sea, over ten days between 27 April and 7 May. The story as we know it so far raises disturbing questions about Australia's adherence to its rescue-at-sea obligations.

On 27 April, a boat left from an unknown location in Indonesia carrying 48 Iranian asylum seekers. They included 12 women and five children aged under six bound for Christmas Island.

Thirty hours out, the engine and pumps failed. Then they drifted for nine days, bailing by hand as the boat filled with water. On the third day, the (Indonesian) crew abandoned ship, swimming to other fishing boats nearby.

The passengers were left to drift for seven more days. Their food and water ran out. They suffered from sunburn, vomiting, and low glucose. It is a miracle that none died.

By the eighth day — 5 May — they were so desperate that two male passengers Sajad and Meisam set out for help in a makeshift raft. These men are presumed drowned.

Finally, on the tenth day at sea — 7 May — the passengers saw a surveillance aircraft overhead. Just three hours later they were rescued by an Indonesia-bound cargo ship, MV Aeolos. Their condition was described by their rescuers as tired, weak, dizzy and distressed.

They are now in detention in Merak. Bachelard met and interviewed them there. He also spoke with Dan Posadas, the chief officer of MV Aeolos.

Bachelard was advised by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA, which manages Rescue Coordination Centre Australia) that:

At approximately 6:15pm on Tuesday 7 May, RCC Australia received notification via Border Protection Command that a surveillance aircraft had detected a vessel that was stationary in the water 110 nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

RCC Australia issued a broadcast to shipping for vessels in the area to provide assistance. MV Aeolos was the closest available asset to respond to the distress broadcast. MV Aeolos responded to the RCC Australia's broadcast and proceeded to the vessel's location, arriving at 9:30 pm that day.

At approximately 2:00am on Wednesday 8 May, the master of the MV Aeolos reported to RCC Australia that all 47 people had been recovered from their vessel, which had been listing and was taking on water. The rescue occurred 110 nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

AMSA advised Bachelard that this information had been sourced from both AMSA and the Department of Customs and Border Protection, which runs Border Protection Command (BPC). AMSA later confirmed that the first notification it had received from Customs of the vessel in distress was at 6.15pm on 7 May.

Based on my previous research into rescues of asylum seekers at sea, I find this whole story disturbing.

My guess is that the boat must have left from somewhere on the south western coast of Java. After 30 hours at an average speed of about 5–8 nautical miles an hour, it would have perhaps got halfway to Christmas Island, possibly as close as 110 nautical miles from Christmas Island. Conditions were calm.

This area is under regular surveillance by Australian aircraft — high-flying RAAF Orions, or Dash 8 Customs aircraft — and possibly by Australian radar, looking for incoming suspected irregular entry vessels. I find it hard to believe that, before 7 May, Australian Customs did not have some human or maritime sourced intelligence of this vessel's plight during the nine days the vessel was drifting 110 nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

Customs had had a good asylum-seeker boat rescue record over the past four months. Media releases by Minister Jason Clare show that at least 27 boats in distress have been assisted at sea by BPC vessels since 3 February. I have to ask how Customs could have missed this particular boat for so long. If they missed it, this would seem to be an operational failure. If they were aware of it before 7 May, this would raise other questions.

Finally why was it 'detected' by a low-flying BPC surveillance aircraft? How is it that the desperate people — by now near death — were finally rescued just three hours later by a conveniently close north-bound cargo ship?

I sense from my previous research into such incidents that there is a large back story yet to be told. We have not been advised that Customs' first knowledge of the boat was on 7 May. If Customs had earlier intelligence of the boat's presence, the failure to conduct search and rescue operations sooner would be reprehensible.

Our country's obligations to rescue people in distress at sea should have nothing to do with policy to deter asylum seekers. Every person in distress at sea deserves prompt rescue action within our resources. Something went badly wrong in this case. It is incumbent on Clare to ask his Departmental secretary Michael Pezzullo for a full briefing on all prior Customs and Border Protection knowledge of this boat in the ten days before 7 May.

We can see from a photo taken from MV Aeolos that the boat was displaying an SOS sign on its roof.

Clare needs to ask Pezzullo why Australian search and rescue action was apparently delayed for so long — possibly, it would seem, until an Indonesia-bound cargo ship was conveniently nearby?

Only two people died, but the toll could easily have been far worse. This life-threatening history of an apparently mishandled rescue at sea needs to be held to public account. An election is only four months away. Whoever then takes government needs to inherit a border protection system that has clean hands.  

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, refugees, Christmas Island, rescue, Indian Ocean



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Existing comments

The cops would have known when they left, the boat is in good condition and there is no way an INdonesia boat was 110 nm north of Christmas Island. Again they wanted them all to die and leave us alone. And we don't need a border protection system, we need a rescue at sea system that is not driven by lazy politics of deterrence. And those people should have been landed on Christmas Island, not Merak.
Marilyn | 19 May 2013

This asylum seeker issue is one of the most controversial contemporary ones in this country. It is a moral and practical minefield. I think, on a practical level, we need a discreet Coast Guard, separate from the Navy, as exists in the USA and Canada. Special expertise is needed here both to keep our borders secure and to prevent ill planned and unwise expeditions like this ending in disaster. The people smuggling industry is corrupt and exploitative and we need to do all we can, with the assistance of neighbouring countries, to crush it. Allied to this is a more proactive approach to bringing the most needy refugees, who may possibly not have A$12,000 to pay people smugglers, living in abject conditions in refugee camps on the borders of Burma (Myanmar) and other such places. We also need to treat detained claimants to refugee status better. Being anti people smuggler but advocating a more generous, but sane, approach to refugees is not a contradiction.
Edward F | 20 May 2013

Tony , way off the mark again. No criticism off the cowardly smugglers who took the money and deserted desperate people at sea, no cry to track down these people and take them out of the system, no it is all the fault of the men and women of customs and defence who have the job of trying to find these wooden boats at sea, the needle in the haystack. Even sadder once again no hint of how to fix the problem of the boats, just criticism based on no evidence.
John Crew | 20 May 2013

Tony, have you ever talked to the Customs crews who rescue these people? My experience is that they are committed to their task, are sympathetic to the plight of the refugees and are greatly affected when 'things go wrong'.
Are you suggesting that there is a conspiracy within Customs, AMSA or the government to ignore boats in distress? To deliberately put peoples lives at risk by ignoring Australia's rescue-at-sea obligations? These are very serious accusations, do you have a clear conscience about traducing the actions of Customs officers on the ground?
As John Crew has pointed out, where is the criticism of the smugglers? Where is the proferred solution that does not encourage more people to risk their lives and their families lives?
Marilyn's comment that 'they wanted them all to die' is beneath contempt; I am actually surprised it was published as I would have thought feedback moderation would block such an accusation.
chris g | 20 May 2013

I don't understand why the issue of our border protection system's obligation to protect all human life known or suspected to be in peril at sea, in its operational areas and within its resources, continues to be confused in some people's minds with other issues. One can argue endlessly about whether people smugglers are evil people or are simply commercial ferrymen meeting an existing demand from asylum seekers desperate to find new safe homes. One can also argue about in what circumstances the deliberate disruption of such voyages - the stated policy of both Labor and Coalition governments - might itself become a crime. Those arguments - in which I do not nowadays take part - do not, it seems to me, allow people of conscience to decline to confront the question: would you leave to die a drowning man, woman or child whom you could have saved? Eureka Street readers can see the evidence and questions that "Reluctant Rescuers" and my articles in Eureka Street are addressing.

Under whatever government, Australia needs a border protection system that never leaves people to drown who could and should have been saved. The questions raised by this latest incident - a boat left drifting around 110 nm from Christmas Island from 28 April to 7 May, with 48 people at risk of dying on board - are as important as the questions raised by previous incidents involving around 1300 deaths at sea in Australia's maritime approaches, since SIEV X in 2001. See
for full details of what is known of these incidents. We cannot allow ourselves as a nation to become desensitised to these matters, it seems to me.
tony kevin | 20 May 2013

You state Mr Kevin, "My guess is that the boat must have left ... " How do we know that everything you write on this matter, which is clearly quite an obsession, is not a guess? There is always a conspiracy isn't there? And never a good word for the numerous lives saved by our navy and never a criticism of those who are in truth responsible for these deaths at sea.
john frawley | 20 May 2013

Thanks to Chris G for his good questions, which I must try to answer. Last year I sent my book ‘Reluctant Rescuers' to the then head of Customs and Border Protection Michael Carmody, and offered to take part in seminars with his officers on the issues it raises. I hope that the new Secretary Michael Pezzullo might take me up on that offer. I have talked to some retired naval officers and I remain ready to talk with whoever wishes to talk to me. From my research as recorded in my two books on this, I agree with Chris G's experience that the Customs crews who rescue asylum seekers are generally committed to their task, are sympathetic to the plight of the refugees and are greatly affected when 'things go wrong'. And no, I am not suggesting any conspiracy within Customs, AMSA or the government to ignore boats in distress. Please read my Reluctant Rescuers and articles in ES to see how things can sometimes go wrong – and clearly have sometimes gone wrong – in a layered secret intelligence-based system of collecting and interpreting various kinds of data on incoming boats. The crews of Customs vessels and aircraft must operate within the operating instructions they receive. They can only look for the boats they are ordered to look for and in the areas they are ordered to surveil. I do not know how they can have missed this boat drifting in fine weather 110 NM north of Christmas Island for nine days. I can only ask Mr Pezzullo to address this question of public importance. It is precisely because I do value and honour the people who work in border protection that I do not want the system damaged when there are failures that cause deaths. I value the fact that 40,000 boat people have arrived here safely – a tribute to the border protection system’s respect for life. But the fact of 1300 deaths starting with SIEV X in 2001 – a seriously disturbing statistic - shows there is sometimes a problem. I am trying within my limited capacities to help address it.
tony kevin | 20 May 2013

Why not use the existing maritime resources to safely bring the unfortunate and maligned asylum seekers to Australia - that would put people smugglers out of business! But political rhetoric needs 'people smugglers ' and 'queue jumpers'.........etc
krisee | 20 May 2013

They do it Tony because both major parties have convinced them, along with our lazy media, that we own the oceans and seas and the people who sail on them when we do not. They refuse to accept that we are talking about human beings with the same human rights as them and prefer to think of them as criminal invaders when we are the criminals who invaded and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan and made both countries infinitely worse. Law, rights and respect matters not a jot to the likes of Frawley so I am convinced he is a very small man with a wery small scared mind who is afraid of people on boats who lives in the centre of Australia somewhere. The fact is that everyone is equal and has the same rights. And again, there are no smugglers, no-one is being smuggled into Australia and here is the only country we control. If they pay to get to safety that is none of our business and should be applauded instead of demonised.
Marilyn | 20 May 2013

Tony You criticise us because we confuse your issue with other issues ,I see it very differently .You take one part of the issue in isolation ,I take the whole issue of refugees . Yes I am strongly affected by the Sudanese who waited in camps for years to come with approval to this country ,no money to short the system for them .It is unacceptable to me that you take a narrow part of the total picture and make a crusade out of it with NEVER a hint of a solution .
john crew | 20 May 2013

but a different story with lone round-the-world yachtspersons where no amount of time or money is ever enough until the rescue...
walter p komarnicki | 21 May 2013

Tony, you write, in answer to comments on your article: "Under whatever government, Australia needs a border protection system that never leaves people to drown who could and should have been saved." In another comment you say: "Last year I sent my book ‘Reluctant Rescuers' to the then head of Customs and Border Protection Michael Carmody, and offered to take part in seminars with his officers on the issues it raises. I hope that the new Secretary Michael Pezzullo might take me up on that offer." Mr Pezzullo may, or may not, take you up on that offer. I guess it's up to him to assess what expertise you have in this matter. Preferably special expertise no one else in his advisory network does. The particular incident you wrote about in this article is regrettable because two people drowned. However, I don't think you can necessarily slate the blame for this up to Customs or anyone else in Australia. There may well have been some sort of operational failure along the line, but, to suggest, as you appear to, that it might be due to premeditated delay amongst Customs, or anyone else in the bureaucracy, is, I think, going a bit too far. Only a non-prejudged enquiry can answer this question. I suggest you have already loaded the dice in your own mind as to what its finding should be. That, in itself, would, I think, be a fair reason for Mr Pezzullo to be a wee bit wary of taking up your offer.
Edward F | 21 May 2013

Edward, the delays by us are well and truly documented in there horror on I suggest you go and read all about it because I can guarantee that if a bunch of nice white tourists were sinking they would not wait 41 hours to send out a search and rescue as they did with a group of Afghans in June last year. They let them drown in the meantime and now use that as an excuse to torture those who didn't drown.
Marilyn | 21 May 2013

I think you're being unnecessarily emotive here, Marilyn. Sieve X was a long time ago. The debate has moved on.
Edward F | 22 May 2013

The 'debate' may have moved on, but the avoidable drownings continue. See
tony kevin | 22 May 2013

By focussing on the gut wrenching, emotive side of the issue, Tony, I think you ignore the big picture. It's people smuggling that's the cause of the deaths.
Edward F | 24 May 2013

Edward, There is no people smuggling. People make the free choice to leave danger and freely pay for transport. That is not smuggling. Never will be smuggling and it is not the fault of the boat crews if there are accidents and Australian governments know about them and do nothing.
Marilyn | 26 May 2013

"Edward, There is no people smuggling. People make the free choice to leave danger and freely pay for transport. That is not smuggling." I refer to this free online dictionary Marilyn Section (2) of the first definition of "smuggle" sums it up viz. "to bring in or take out illicitly or by stealth".
Edward F | 27 May 2013

Edward, the only point of time that matters in this context is how people enter here and they do not enter covertly and never have because they want to appeal to the authorities here for help. As we have nothing to do with the borders of any other country your point is meaningless.
Marilyn | 28 May 2013


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