Capsized boat details mired in secrecy and difference in accounts

May 26 2013
Natalie O'Brien
SMH

Secrecy still surrounds the events before an asylum seeker boat capsized, leaving 17 men drowned and another 73 missing, presumed dead, as the federal government keeps an official review of the incident under wraps.

Widespread concerns were raised about the incident on June 21, after people on the boat rang authorities for help at least four times before the tragedy. On one occasion, they were told to turn back to Indonesia. No one was sent to their aid.

The Minister for Home Affairs Jason Clare told Parliament a few days after the incident: ''This is yet another terrible tragedy. It is incumbent now on all of us to learn from this. To work together and to act to help ensure this never happens again.''

Mr Clare has had the report since October. The minister's spokesman said the West Australian Coroner had said a coronial inquiry would be held next month and the findings of the review would be released when the coronial inquiry was completed.

Former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin, who investigated the sinking of the SIEV X in 2001, said the government's stalling on releasing the report suggested ''they are hiding something embarrassing''.

But he said he hoped the outcome of the coronial inquiry would set important precedents for Australian rescues in the Indonesian search and rescue zone.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the government had already recognised it needed to improve communications between its departments involved in search and rescue operations. She said its failure to release the inquiry into last June's incident was concerning.

''It is disappointing that delayed responses to boats in distress off of our shores, like the disaster in June of last year, continue to happen,'' she said. ''There has been an unacceptable number of tragic events in recent years, showing that the government needs to investigate why these delays are occurring and whether our current rescue protocols and practices are adequate.''

The Customs and Border Protection Service has refused to release the chronology of events requested by Fairfax Media under freedom of information laws, claiming it would prejudice other investigations. But separate documents that had been released under FOI did hint at errors.

One document containing government talking points said ''areas for improvement in the sharing of information between agencies continue to be identified through a practice of ongoing review following SOLAS [safety of life at sea] incidents, including the events on 21 and 27 June 2012''.

The boat was carrying male asylum seekers, including nine unaccompanied boys, from Pakistan and Afghanistan when it got into trouble at 10pm on Tuesday, June 19. Some on board called the Australian Maritime Safety Authority rescue co-ordination centre.

According to government documents obtained by Fairfax Media, Customs reported different information that day: the vessel was under way, sea conditions were favourable and those on board were well.

The contradictory reporting continued the next day when, at 10.52am, AMSA again received phone calls from the boat passengers saying they were in difficulties. Co-ordination of the response was given to the Indonesian search and rescue agency Basarnas. But later that day, a Customs plane spotted the boat and again reported it was under way and ''there were no visual signs of distress''.

Yet just a few hours later, at 8.49pm, AMSA received the final distress calls from the boat before it was learnt it had capsized on Thursday morning.

Among the 110 people rescued were two Indonesian crewmen who have been charged.

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