Warning on rescue handovers

Joel Magarey
April 27, 2013 12:00AM

AUSTRALIA'S maritime rescue authority passed responsibility to Indonesia for two boat emergencies that resulted in 187 deaths even though Indonesia had a "limited capacity" to effect sea rescues.

A 2012 federal government document, released under freedom of information laws, has emerged after the Australian Maritime Safety Authority on April 12 entrusted Indonesia with the response to another boat emergency, in which a reported 58 asylum-seekers drowned.

The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service brief has sparked renewed criticism by maritime law experts who had previously queried the legality of AMSA's actions, while the Greens have called for an investigation into a "broken" search and rescue system.

The call comes as a record number of asylum-seekers -- 2899 -- have made the dangerous boat journey to Australia this month alone. The latest arrivals mean that 103 boats have reached Australia this year -- with 41 of those this month.

Sydney University associate professor of law Tim Stephens warned Australian authorities against "going through the motions" in passing incidents to Indonesia to handle "when they know full well that (the Indonesians) cannot actually do what they are obliged to do".

He said that under an appropriate purposes-based reading of the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, "if Australia knows -- as it does -- that Indonesia cannot meet its responsibilities, then Australia should step in".

The "key issue" brief, produced in October for customs and border protection chiefs appearing before a Senate estimates committee, says that under international maritime law, vessels' masters have a "general obligation to render assistance" to "any vessels in distress".

The brief makes clear AMSA had initial responsibility for distress incidents reported first to it, even those in Indonesia's rescue region. It says the "first (national rescue authority) to be aware of a distress situation" -- usually AMSA in the case of the asylum-seeker boats -- "is responsible" until the country in whose search and rescue region (SRR) the incident occurs then "assumes responsibility".

But the Indonesian rescue authority Basarnas, "having been notified that assistance is required in their SRR, has often not been able to accept responsibility for the SAR (search and rescue) response", after which "responsibility has remained" with AMSA.

Among summaries of "significant events" in the key issue brief are the incidents of June 19-21 and August 29-31 last year, during which AMSA transferred responsibility to Indonesia, but its ineffective responses were followed by mass drownings.

Australia eventually re-took control of both rescues, 30 hours later in the June incident in which 92 people drowned between Java and Christmas Island, and 12 hours later in August when 95 people died about 80km west of Java. On April 12 this year AMSA passed a report to Basarnas about a possible sinking in the Sunda Strait in which an estimated 58 people drowned.


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