Australia and Indonesia's deadly games of pass-the-parcel

Eureka Street
Tony Kevin
23 June 2013

Blood-stained parcel stamped 'Shipped'Next week's public inquest by the WA Coroner, Alastair Hope, into SIEV 358 (Kaniva), which capsized halfway to Christmas Island on 21 June 2012, drowning 90 people, is welcome.

The SIEV 358 case encapsulates key questions as to why these tragedies (18 in the past four years, resulting in over 950 deaths) too often happen at interfaces between Australia's border protection system, Australia's maritime search and rescue system, and the under-resourced Indonesian maritime search and rescue system.

It raises issues of Indonesian and Australian Search and Rescue (SAR) responsibilities in the so-called Indonesian SAR Region, and of coordination of Australian Border Protection Command (BPC) and Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) responses to a notified SAR emergency.

Readers of my series of Eureka Street articles on asylum seeker boat sinkings will know that, in my assessment, mass deaths occur when the rescue responsibility baton is passed too late, fumbled by the recipient agency, or should not have been passed at all.

Australia's two official agencies most concerned in rescuing at-risk asylum seekers BPC under the authority of Customs, and the AMSA Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) routinely get it right. Many lives are regularly and without fuss saved by BPC ships. Just over the past week, Jason Clare issued four 'BPC assists vessel' media releases for events that probably occurred within the so-called Indonesian Search and Rescue Region (SRR).

Often, AMSA RCC is not involved at all. But sometimes, BPC declares a SAR situation, and AMSA then becomes the lead Australian agency. Sometimes AMSA is the first to know of distress. AMSA then has to decide whether to pass the baton to its Indonesian counterpart BASARNAS, a vastly less well-resourced agency.

There is a large official documentary trail on SIEV 358 in the public arena. The official Customs report awaits public release. But FOI searches late last year uncovered many apparently complete official chronologies and talking points prepared for possible use in Senate committees.

It seems there are three kinds of possible systems failure the Coroner might examine.

First, there is the apparent initial failure by AMSA to launch a full-scale Australian SAR response as soon as it received the first located distress call at 0130 AEST Wednesday 20 June from the boat, then in international waters 38 NM south of Indonesia. Second and third, there are questions of whether BASARNAS and BPC each took effective SAR action in the ensuing 37.5 hours.

Over the first 9.5 hours, AMSA negotiated a transfer of the SAR coordination responsibility to BASARNAS. Indonesia handed this back to AMSA 36 hours later: some 7.5 hours after a routine BPC surveillance flight had detected the capsized boat halfway between Indonesia and Christmas Island. During this time the boat had limped forward some 70 NM towards Christmas Island before capsizing.

There was one reported Australian sighting, from a routine BPC Dash 8 surveillance flight, at approximately 1700 AEST on 20 June 15.5 hours after the first located distress call. The vessel was reported, at a location not yet publicly disclosed, to be travelling south at 4 NM/hour and with no visible signs of distress.

It is normal for BPC to photograph such incidents, and the Coroner could ask to see images. Were people waving from the deck? Might this have indicated some kind of distress that should have been investigated by a BPC ship? Survivors might remember this overflight and how much later their boat capsized.

At this stage, it is not clear what AMSA did, and what BASARNAS did, to alert shipping including BPC ships and aircraft in the vicinity during the 37.5 hours leading up to detection of the capsized hull. BPC seems to have only done its routine surveillance.

Did AMSA or BASARNAS send out Panpan or Mayday SAR signals to shipping? Had AMSA, BPC or BASARNAS judged the distress calls not to be genuine? Why did AMSA pass the rescue coordination responsibility to BASARNAS for 36 hours, and what did BASARNAS do while Australia continued to receive distress phone-calls?

Strange things happened during the final morning. ABC reporter Matt Brown has obtained in Indonesia a series of faxes from AMSA RCC to BASARNAS. One dated 21 June said RCC had received information that 'at approximately 0730 AEST a maritime vessel in a position approx. 110 NM NNW of Christmas Island may be taking on water with persons on board fearful of their safety'.

This appears to be the same information referred to in the FOI briefs, that 'at 11.07am AEST BPC received additional information that raised concerns about the safety of the vessel. The information was passed to RCC Australia at 11.37am AEST who then passed the information to BASARNAS.'

If the Coroner should find this ABC-sourced fax from RCC to BASARNAS to be authentic, it would mean the boat may have capsized in that location soon after 0730 7.5 hours before a BPC routine surveillance aircraft detected its capsized hull from the air at 1500. This seems to suggest more puzzling delays in BPC's and AMSA's SAR responses, late in the development of this emergency.

The issue of the Indonesian SRR hangs over this whole story. Indonesia has not adhered to at least one SAR convention, nor has it accepted its internationally designated SRR.

We know BPC routinely intercepts and provides rescue assistance to SIEVs in the Indonesian SRR, under three international SAR conventions signed by Australia, which require any country that receives the first distress call and has resources to respond, to do so regardless of which country's SRR the call is made from.

Yet there are hints that there may be an expectation by Australian ministers or officials that BASARNAS should take lead responsibility for SAR emergencies in parts of its SRR closer to Indonesia than Christmas Island; though they would also know that each time Indonesia has been persuaded to accept this responsibility, it has failed to organise effective SAR action, and people have died.

If this is an Australian-planned learning process for BASARNAS, it has been hugely costly: a deadly game of bureaucratic pass-the-parcel, with bodies floating in the water all too often the tragic outcome.

Lots for the Coroner to look into next week, if he so decides.

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