Last week's tragic sinking near Christmas Island marks a new low in Australia's dark history of asylum-seeker mass drownings.
The deaths of 60 or more people following the capsize of their 22 metre blue-hulled Indonesian fishing boat occurred after the boat had been detected and overflown just twenty eight nautical miles (NM) from Christmas Island by a Border Protection Command (BPC) flight. This is the first time a Suspected Irregular Entry Vessel (SIEV) has been observed by BPC so close to the normal Christmas Island interception zone (12 to 24 NM from Christmas Island), and yet gone on to sink nearby with all lives lost. Nothing quite like this has ever happened before; it is a terrible precedent and raises many questions.
When the boat was initially detected by a P3 Orion surveillance flight last Wednesday afternoon, it was not moving. During a press conference on Sunday the chief executive officer of Customs and Border Protection, Rear Admiral David Johnston, described what the P3 crew had reported: 'a vessel stationary in the water... people had come out to line around the outside of the vessel, they waved at the aircraft. There was no indication from their demeanour that the vessel was in distress.' It would appear that BPC had no real concerns about the safety of people on board the drifting boat as the Navy frigate HMAS Warramunga did not arrive in the area to attempt to intercept it till after midnight, seven hours after the P3 surveillance flight first spotted it.
We know that back in the Howard era, our Border Protection people on occasion left broken down SIEVs immobilised in the water for long periods. For example, Palapa, the boat that was rescued by MV Tampa in August 2001 was spotted dead in the water but was left overnight in a storm before Australian authorities responded to its plight and issued a broadcast to shipping to go to the rescue. It was a miracle that Palapa and the more than 400 passengers she carried survived this reckless neglect.
Given the number of asylum-seeker mass drowning incidents that have occurred over the last three years, it is troubling that Border Protection
Command left the SIEV drifting last week for seven hours before sending the Warramunga. Might the tragedy have been averted if a police or Customs boat had been sent from Christmas Island to check on the SIEV while it was still daylight and presumably easier to locate?
Jason Clare described the middle of the night search by Warramunga: 'It conducted a spiral search of the area out to a radius of 11 nautical miles but could not find the vessel. It then searched the approach corridor to Christmas Island. It continued this search throughout Thursday and Friday. An air force P-3 aircraft also searched the area throughout Thursday and Friday.'
What the Minister described here were routine border protection procedures on Thursday and Friday to locate and intercept incoming SIEVs. These were not dedicated search and rescue responses to a potential SOLAS situation. We know this because AMSA Rescue Coordination Centre was not engaged in the search until Friday
It appears that it was not until 10am Friday morning, a full forty hours after the Wednesday sighting of the boat by BPC that Australia's search and rescue organisation AMSA was informed of the missing boat. It then issued a Pan-pan notice to all shipping in the area, stating that the vessel was now considered overdue at Christmas Island.
About 3pm AEST on Friday afternoon, the submerged capsized hull of the missing vessel was discovered by a P3 Orion flight. It was this macabre discovery that finally triggered the top priority SOLAS response, involving the mobilisation of three aircraft, HMAS Warramunga and two merchant vessels. A Mayday Relay notice was issued by AMSA at about 3am on Saturday but by then it was too late; the people who had been on board the capsized vessel had already been drifting helplessly on the boat, or in the water, for up to 56 hours (we may never know when the boat capsized and when it sank). Despite an intensive search from Friday to Monday, no survivors were ever found.
We are assured repeatedly - and indeed the Law requires - that Australia does not treat asylum seekers in SIEVs any differently to people in other vessels in regard to a safety-of-life-at-sea response. Yet it is hard to imagine a circumstance where if we came across a boatload of our own citizens stopped dead in the water and waving, that we would leave them unassisted in any way for seven or eight hours, and only after forty hours of failing to find them would we then contact our Search and Rescue organisation.
Similarly our failure to retrieve any of the bodies of the dead from the sunken boat appears to be gross disrespect and discrimination towards these people and their families.
We may never know the names of the sixty desperate people who lost their lives seeking refuge in Australia but we owe their families an explanation for how they came to die so close to Christmas Island after having been detected by BPC and why we could not retrieve even one of their bodies. Are our resources stretched so tightly that we must be so inhumane?
Jason Clare indicated that there will be an internal review of this incident. Hopefully this will be done swiftly and released publicly prior to a coronial inquest (and there certainly must be such an inquest into this case). It is almost a year now since SIEV 358 (aka Kaniva) capsized north of Christmas Island after having made a series of distress calls to AMSA over two days; the internal review for that incident was completed last October and still hasn't seen the light of day. It is reportedly being witheld until after the coronial inquiry later this month.
The brave men and women who work at the coal face of our Border Protection system do an amazing job in very difficult circumstances. These men and women put their own lives on the line time and again to save the lives of others and if it wasn't for their efforts the number of asylum seekers who have drowned at sea would undoubtedly be many times higher than it currently stands. But the upper echelons of Border Protection management need to be more transparent and accountable in terms of their safety-of-life-at-sea attitudes and practices, if they are to give the public faith that they are willing and able to learn from their mistakes. After all the well-publicised tragedies over the past three years this latest shameful tragedy should never have been allowed to happen.
(For an archive of documents on this sinking see here)