The Abbott Government’s tough new border protection regime - Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) - has bumped right up against the most bizarre tragedy to date. An asylum seeker vessel sailed for four days and ended up sinking about 50 metres off the coast of Java, nearly as far away from Christmas Island as when it started. When the search was called off, dozens of bodies had been retrieved including many women & children, and an unknown number remain missing. It is believed that around 81 people were on the boat when it foundered and more than 50 lost their lives.
More than a week since the drownings, details remain sketchy and contradictory. This sinking is unlike any other we are aware of – it needs to be investigated in order to determine how and why such a strange and tragic incident could occur. Chillingly, the deaths on this boat were the first since the introduction of Operation Sovereign Borders. Questions must be asked about what if any role, direct or indirect, Australia’s military style border protection policy played in this shocking incident.
What we know about the tragedy
A partial timeline of what Australia knew of the event was provided three days after the sinking by Vice-Chief of the Defence Force, Air Marshal Mark Binskin at the weekly OSB Media Briefing. (It is important to note that Australian authorities have not made public the coordinates received from the boat at any
time in their briefings.)
Details of the actual voyage included here have been gleaned from media reports.
The boat is reported to have departed Indonesia from Pelabuhan Ratu in Banten province on Monday 23 September and foundered four days later on Friday 27 September, sometime between 10am and midday Jakarta time very close to Agrabinta beach on the outskirts of Sukabumi, West Java. Survivors claim they were escorted to the departure point by men in uniforms. The vessel was in very poor repair, there were no life jackets and no food was provided. One survivor said he was given only one 600 ml bottle of water during the entire journey. Curiously the captain did not set a direct course for Christmas Island but meandered aimlessly - 'left turn, left turn,' a survivor described to a journalist. Christmas Island is about a 36 hour trip from Pelabuhan Ratu but after four days at sea the boat was not much closer to its destination than when it first set out.
In another odd twist, it appears that passengers on the boat contacted Australian authorities between 3 and 5 hours before the sinking and gave GPS coordinates which placed the boat about 60 nautical miles away from the sinking position. It is unlikely that the boat could have travelled this distance to the sinking location either adrift or with the engine functioning in that time and suggests that the passengers may have accidentally given the wrong longitude coordinates to AMSA. (An error of one degree in longitude in 'transcription' would account for the 60 mile discrepancy).
What were the Australian authorities doing during this event?
The day of the Agrabinta sinking was an extremely busy time for OSB. In the space of twenty four hours two boatloads of asylum seekers were rescued by Australian Border protection ships, the boats burnt at sea, the passengers returned to Indonesian waters and transferred to Indonesian authorities. In recent years it has been extremely rare for asylum seekers rescued close to Indonesia by an Australian Border Protection Command (BPC) vessel to be returned to Indonesia. The usual practice has been that asylum seekers rescued by us close to Indonesia have been taken to Christmas Island.
We cannot be certain of the exact time that the Agrabinta sinking occurred. As mentioned earlier, recent reporting out of Indonesia indicates that the boat sank about 50 metres from shore on Friday between 10am and midday Jakarta time (1-3pm AEST). If this is correct, then according to the OSB timeline Australia had coordination of the rescue effort for between five and seven hours prior to the sinking.
We know that at 10.41am AEST (7.41am Jakarta time and some two to four hours before the time of the sinking) the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) contacted Indonesia’s Search and Rescue Agency, BASARNAS and attempted to pass coordination of the rescue to the Indonesians. BASARNAS refused.
Questions about the impact of Australian Government policy
Why did BASARNAS refuse to coordinate the rescue of this boat which was so very close to the Indonesian coast line? Was it in any way connected to the fact that it had already agreed that same day to accept two boatloads of rescued asylum seekers? Did the people aboard the doomed boat lose their lives because they fell into a fissure that may have opened up between Australian and Indonesian Search and Rescue organisations?
When did BASARNAS finally accept coordination of the rescue effort?
Two days after the sinking the Jakarta Post ran an article claiming BASARNAS had 'allegedly been receiving illegal funds from the Australian government with regard to the handling of refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East' and quoted a professor of international law from the University of Indonesia’s School of Law, in Jakarta, who castigated BASARNAS:
'What a stupid thing for Basarnas to accept the refugees and asylum seekers from the Australian Navy under the pretext that they were found in Indonesian waters. It reflects stupidity, not hospitality,' he said.
There are many other questions concerning this tragedy.
• If the boat was at sea for 4 days, where exactly was it during this time and why? Did it meander in circles close to the coast as suggested by some survivors or did it get a fair distance to Christmas Island and then turn back? At what point did it run out of fuel? Was the engine still running when the boat made telephone contact with Australian authorities?
• What was the role of the Indonesian crew of the fishing boat? What is the truth of reports of the crew deserting when it became apparent it was sinking? What sort of captain sets sail for Christmas Island, yet four days later runs out of fuel close to the Indonesian coast, saves his own life while the majority of his passengers drown?
• Did Australian policy have any influence on how this tragedy played out?
Yesterday, at the weekly OSB briefing Scott Morrison said:
'We're not running a taxi service here or a reception centre. We are running a military-led border security operation, and as a result the rules and mode of operations have changed.'
If Australia’s proudly belligerent border protection policy continues to encounter stubborn resistance from Indonesia with regard to accepting coordination of search and rescue events involving asylum seeker vessels close to its coastline can we expect to see more bodies wash up on the shores of Java?