How a deadly voyage forced humiliating policy retreat

June 25, 2013
Michael Bachelard

The political impact in Australia of the boat which sank on June 21, 2012, after days of floundering at sea, was immediate and enormous.

This boat, organised by people smuggler Billu and Indonesian Freddy Ambon, with the help of Afghani Dawood Amiri, sank about halfway between Indonesia and Christmas Island, after 30 hours or more of confusion between Australian and Indonesian rescuers about who was responsible for its rescue.

Freddy and Amiri have now both conceded that the boat was overloaded. Both deny responsibility.

Amiri told Fairfax Media in February that the 207 passengers aboard that boat were to have been a marketing coup for Billu. Advertisement

''That boat, it was going to break the previous record. If it made it to Christmas [Island], Billu said his network would become number one,'' Amiri said.

But the large numbers made it slow and unbalanced. Amiri was in phone contact with a man on the boat until the moment it sank. His friend told him about 150 of the passengers, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan and not used to the ocean, stayed on deck, ignoring pleas to "get inside, down in the stomach" of the boat to stabilise it.

The window of good weather was just three days and it was still mid-ocean when, on the fourth day, the wind blew up.

"The boat just got a little on one side, and all the boys who were up on the boat, more than 150 people, all rushed to the other side, and it just tipped," Amiri said.

Ultimately it was Australian navy personnel who assumed responsibility for the rescue and tried to save as many lives as they could. Amiri has since told Fairfax Media there were 207 people on board, 111 were rescued, which means 96 died that day - more than other estimates. The political fall-out was immediate and powerful. Ultimately, the Gillard government was forced into a humiliating policy backdown.

Initially, though, Julia Gillard tried to use the sinking, and a smaller one a few days later, to push her ''Malaysia solution'' legislation through Parliament.

"We have seen too much tragedy," she told Parliament as she reintroduced a private member's bill by Rob Oakeshott.

The Coalition, though, held firm to its preferred policy of towing boats back to Indonesia, and reopening Nauru and Manus Island as detention centres.

The deadlock pushed the issue off to an expert committee led by retired Defence chief Angus Houston, with the ultimate result that the Coalition policy, except for the boat tow-back, was adopted. The Malaysia plan (also recommended in the Houston report) has so far made no further progress. Amiri has been jailed for six years and his boss, Billu was recently arrested and has not yet gone on trial.

Asylum Seekers The Tragedies

2001 October 19 A vessel, dubbed the SIEV X, sinks off the coast of Indonesia. 352 dead.
2002 May 22 A boat carrying Afghan asylum seekers from Indonesia is believed to have sunk en route to Australia with 42 dead.
2009 January 15 A boat carrying 18 asylum seekers sinks off Rote Island, south-west of Timor. 14 dead.
November 1 Refugee boat sinks 350 nautical miles off the Cocos Islands with 12 believed dead.
2010 December 15 Vessel smashes into rocks at Christmas Island with up to 48 killed.
May 9 Five missing after abandoning vessel north of Cocos Islands.
2011 November 1 Tiny boat capsizes off Java, up to 15 dead.
December 17 More than 200 asylum seekers are feared to have died after their boat sank off Java.
2012 February 1 Bodies of eight asylum seekers washed ashore when the vessel, which was carrying Afghan and Iraqi men, capsized off the coast of southern Malaysia.
June 21 96 died and 109 rescued from capsized boat carrying 200 Afghan refugees, 110 nautical miles from Christmas Island.
June 27 Four believed dead and 130 rescued from capsized boat 107 nautical miles from Christmas Island.
2013 February 16 32 surviving Burmese asylum seekers rescued by Sri Lankan navy. Nearly 100 died of dehydration and starvation during nearly two months adrift while Australia-bound.
April 12 More than 50 asylum seekers are thought to have drowned when their boat sank in the Sunda Strait off Indonesia. The boat was believed to be carrying 72 people, with 14 rescued, at least five drowned and 53 missing.
June 20 Boat sinks south of Indonesian mainland. Believed to be about 90 people dead.


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