Notes from a boat tragedy inquest


Driftwood in the shape of the word 'HELP'Last week I attended the first two days of the WA Coroner's inquest into the sinking of SIEV 358 on 21 June 2012. Rules of court reporting prevent me from commenting on testimonies presented so far, or predicting any findings.

But some things can be reported about what is shaping up to be the most thorough public examination ever of Australian rescue-at-sea protocols and practice in respect of assisting people on Suspected Irregular Entry Vessels (SIEVs) who send distress calls to Australian authorities. (It has been generally accepted Australian practice, as testified to by ministers and officials, that every maritime distress call must be investigated.)

According to survivor accounts referenced at the inquest, the overloaded old boat had been taking on water and travelling very slowly. It had possibly sustained hull damage when it ran aground and was then pulled off a sandbank early in the four-day voyage. Finally an engine cooling pipe broke irreparably, causing the boat to rapidly fill with water, resulting in engine failure and capsize soon after 4.30am Australian Western Standard Time (all times herein are AWST) on 21 June. Survivors then spent many hours in the water or on the capsized hull.

The boat capsized 107 NM from Indonesia and 110 NM from Christmas Island. Two merchant ships and two Navy frigates on border protection duties came soon after AMSA issued an emergency distress call to shipping, rescuing 114 people from the water. Ninety people drowned.

WA Coroner Alastair Hope is investigating. He may make recommendations to render future tragedies less likely. He is assisted by a Counsel Assisting (CA), barrister Marco Tedeschi. Two senior barristers represent the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and other Commonwealth agencies.

There has been detailed media reporting of the inquest's first two days. Highlights were the CA's opening address; testimony by Alan Lloyd, manager of Search and Rescue Operations, AMSA; 90 minutes of tapes of distress calls from the boat to AMSA, and of AMSA conversations with its Indonesian counterpart BASARNAS; and video footage of the boat when it was first detected from the air, at 3.15pm on 20 June, low in the water but moving forward.

The CA noted that AMSA had received numerous distress satellite phone calls from the boat over many hours. It had located the boat travelling in international waters. AMSA was thus, he suggested, under an obligation to commence Search and Rescue (SAR) operations, alerting merchant shipping and Australian Border Protection Command (BPC) naval ships.

He said the inquest would examine whether AMSA had been best placed to take responsibility for the SAR from the outset; whether AMSA had complied with the terms of the working arrangement agreed in 2004 between AMSA and BASARNAS; whether AMSA had better communications, SAR units or facilities, or better procedures and capability to respond compared to BASARNAS; and whether AMSA's transfer of responsibility for the SAR to BASARNAS met criteria set out in the 2004 arrangement.

He suggested that AMSA's major focus in the first 11 hours until BASARNAS accepted SAR responsibility had been to transfer the operation to Indonesia. AMSA had not made any emergency broadcasts to nearby shipping. Even five hours after the transfer, neither AMSA nor BASARNAS had undertaken any effective SAR action.

It appears that the boat finally capsized around 29 hours after the first located distress call at 11.30pm on 19 June. It had then been 36 NM from Indonesia. During the next 29 hours it had travelled a further 70 NM at an average speed around 2.4 knots (NM/hour). The usual speed of these boats is 6-10 knots.

Eight and a half hours after the capsize, at 1pm on 21 June, a BPC Dash 8 surveillance flight detected people on the capsized hull and in the waterThis triggered a full AMSA-coordinated emergency rescue response. Three merchant ships arrived within four and a half hours, rescuing 39 people. Navy frigates HMAS Wollongong and HMAS Larrakia also arrived within four and a half hours, rescuing 71 more people.

The CA commended the efficient rescue response, underscoring that Australia had the capability to respond quickly and effectively when tasked. He questioned why there had not been an AMSA request to vessels close to SIEV 358 to investigate the reported distress situation at a much earlier time.

Lloyd testified that throughout most of the incident's history, AMSA had assessed the distress calls to be 'normal refugee patter'. Many SIEVs sent distress calls, but most completed their voyages without sinking.

He said that (over an unstated period) 460 SIEVs came to Australia, 300 requested assistance, but only eight foundered. He said AMSA had also assessed the 'calm discussive tone' of the distress calls, and the fact that the boat was moving forward, as indicating a 'desire for assistance' but not 'genuine distress' as in imminent danger of sinking. AMSA was still in an 'assessment phase'. Yet-to-be-released 'irrefutable' intelligence collected at the time a BPC Dash 8 first overflew SIEV 358 had confirmed AMSA in this view.

Much later, however, some secret intelligence received from BPC (and contained in a still-secret Customs and Border Protection internal inquiry) led AMSA to 'change the status of the boat'.

The Coroner directed that before the court resumes on 24 July it must have access to a declassified version of the Customs internal inquiry, to be considered in court and referenced in public findings. Barristers indicated a need for more discussion of the legal status of the Indonesian SAR region, and of Australia's legal SAR obligations under the 2004 SAR Arrangement. Some survivors may give evidence. Up to three more days are reserved (24-26 July) for final evidence and closing arguments by barristers.

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

Help image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Coroner's inquest, SIEV X, asylum seekers, Indonesia, AMSA, BASARNAS



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Existing comments

I noticed, in a story in the Australian on the first day of the enquiry, that your submission to the Coronial Inquiry was rejected. Interestingly enough, most of the article was about comments from you. Obviously you have some skill and experience with contacting the press. I also find it interesting that your articles read like a Staff Officer's report on an incident and incidents: on the one hand seemingly very thorough, to some extent even obsessive about some minutiae, whilst not quite comprehending the difficulties of the troops on the front line given their being over stretched and lacking in resources and perhaps, as a Staff Officer, not quite aware of the overall battle plan. The matter in question, however labelled, is about border protection and Australia controlling its own immigration policy. As a former diplomat you should be well aware of the ramifications of both. I notice, in an article in today's Australian, a call for larger legal refugee quota, which is supported by members of the local Muslim community. I myself would support this approach. Concentrating on the disasters, however tragic, deflects from this: we need humanity with head as well as heart.

Edward F | 02 July 2013  

In response to points made by Edward F, may I clarify that most of this essay was straight reporting of the Counsel Assisting's opening statement on 25 June (paras 3, 4, 7-12) and the AMSA officer's testimony the next day (paras 13-15) . This can be confirmed by reading the two 'Australian' articles by Nicholas Perpitch URL-referenced in the essay.The rules of court reporting do not allow me to comment on evidence presented by any party to the inquest. As to my submission being rejected, this is the Court's prerogative and does not represent any judgement by the Coroner as to the arguments therein. Let us await the Coroner's findings.

tony kevin | 02 July 2013  

Thank you for your response, Tony. That's fair enough. As you know, articles in the Australian vary in slant. Greg Sheridan's views, based on his sources, are radically different from yours. I guess this is a "hot" emotional issue. You certainly seemed to take a very forensic approach to things but I suppose the matter in dispute needs that approach.

Edward F | 02 July 2013  

Thank you for your persistent pursuit of the truth, and for justice for the persecuted. Edward F's reference to a "legal refugee quota " requires clarification. As a former Immigration Officer, I draw a clear distinction between the refugee /humanitarian resettlement sub program of the annual Migration Program and the management of asylum seekers who cross our borders, as is their legal right. Politicians and journalists persist in pretending that "good refugees" are those whom Immigration officials cherry pick from very large pools of UNHCR processed asylum seekers who are refugees, and therefore must be resettled somewhere, or eke out their lifes in a refugee camp. They say or imply that asylum seekers who dare to come direct & self funded, are some how "bad refugees" EVEN WHEN on processing of their claims are confirmed to be "genuine" refugees also requiring resettlement. At any time the Government of the day can respond to a humanitarian crisis and elect to resettle more refugees. Had Australia done so, and helped UNHCR in Indonesia resettle more refugees from its growing pool of refugees, we would NOT have had the tragic increase in dangerous sea journeys and deaths at sea. Asylum seekers legally engage our obligations under the Refugee Convention. We owe it to our neightbours to volunteer to share the "burden" of people who have fled their homes for reasons of persecution, and cannot safely go home.

Frederika Steen | 05 July 2013  

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