Slow rescue bid 'cost lives'

June 10, 2013
Judith Ireland

Australia's border protection service has been accused of causing lives to be lost by responding too slowly to the latest asylum seeker boat tragedy off Christmas Island.

A former Australian ambassador has called for a coronial inquiry into the response by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service. The Greens also want a more thorough inquiry than the standard internal review.

More than 40 people are missing and feared dead after the sinking. Thirteen bodies were spotted in the water on Saturday, and a sea-and-air search west of Christmas Island on Sunday found no survivors and no more bodies.

The incident prompted the federal Coalition to reiterate its tow-back policy on asylum seeker boats, but the nation's border protection chief warned that this could lead to the sabotage of boats. Advertisement

Questions have been asked about the time taken to mount the rescue operation after an air force plane spotted the boat when it was 28 nautical miles north-west of Christmas Island about 5.45pm (AEST) on Wednesday. The boat was carrying about 55 people on deck, mostly men but also a small number of women and children.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said it had been ''too early to tell'' where the group had come from. When the boat was first spotted it had been stationary but did not appear in distress, he said. It is understood the Australian authorities did not receive a distress call.

Former ambassador Tony Kevin, in calling for a coronial inquiry, said Border Protection Command had taken too long to send a rescue vessel.

''I contend that if they'd taken prompt interception or assistance action by a surface vessel on Wednesday afternoon, those 55 people would still be alive,'' he said.

Mr Kevin, who writes on safety-at-sea issues, also questioned why the Australian Maritime Safety Authority did not send out a PAN-PAN (Potential Assistance Needed) call until 10am on Friday.

HMAS Warramunga arrived in the area at 1.30am on Thursday but could not find the boat. After searches on Thursday, a plane spotted a submerged hull about 3pm on Friday. When the Warramunga arrived at the location, only pieces of wood and life-jackets could be seen.

''This is another terrible tragedy, another terrible reminder of how dangerous these journeys are,'' Mr Clare told reporters in Canberra on Sunday.

He said the search would be reviewed by Customs and Border Protection as was standard practice. ''I want to make sure that everything that should have been done, was done,'' he said.

Coalition border protection spokesman Michael Keenan said he would seek a briefing on the sinking from the government as soon as possible.

''This is another terrible human tragedy on top of the other terrible human tragedies that have unfolded on our borders over the past six years,'' he told Sky News.

Mr Keenan said the Coalition was prepared to do whatever it took to ''smash'' people smuggling, including turning boats around.

Indonesia's ambassador to Australia, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema, has ruled out any collaboration with Australia to send asylum seekers back to Indonesia.

But Mr Keenan said Australia did not need a formal arrangement with its neighbour to turn back boats.

''We are returning Indonesian boats to Indonesian ports. We can do that as we have done it in the past without a formal arrangement,'' he said.

But Border Protection Command chief Rear Admiral David Johnston said there were risks with the Coalition's tow-back policy.

He told reporters the BPC would ''perform the role that any government of the day expects of us. Part of that will be making sure they understand any of the risks associated with an activity.''

These risks could include attempts by asylum seekers to sabotage boats or threats of self-harm, he said. Navy chief Admiral Ray Griggs has previously warned of the risks involved for Australian personnel in turning boats around.

On Sunday, HMAS Warramunga located a second boat about 110 nautical miles north of Christmas Island that it believes made a distress call on Saturday. The boat has about 70 people on board, who were being taken to the island.

With AAP


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