'Nothing done' as SIEV 358 boatpeople died

Stuart Rintoul
June 25, 2013 12:00AM

THE boat capsized in the dark. It was about 4.30am. There were 200 people on board. Asylum-seekers from Parachinar and Afghanistan, mostly, so crowded they had scarcely been able to move.

The boat had been in trouble for four days. Distress calls had been made to both Indonesian and Australian authorities. But no one had come for them.

As he remembers the sinking of the SIEV 358, "Abbas", as we will call him, remembers the cries in the dark in the water. Men crying out in Pashto: "Oh Moor, Oh Mawla, (Oh Mother, Oh God,) help us."

An inquest into the disaster of the SIEV 358, in which 90 people drowned in June last year, begins in Perth today. But uncomfortable questions have already been raised about the performance of both Australian and Indonesian maritime authorities.

In a damning submission prepared for the inquest, former ambassador Tony Kevin has questioned whether the Australian Maritime Safety Authority "acted responsibly" in passing responsibility for rescuing the stricken boat to the Indonesian search and rescue agency Basarnas, causing 37 hours to be lost.

In Mr Kevin's submission, which the inquiry has declined to accept, but which has been seen by The Australian, Mr Kevin says that in the 36 hours Basarnas had control of the search and rescue before handing it to Australia it did "precisely nothing".

Mr Kevin, an award-winning author on the subject of the border protection system, questions whether Australia would have been so "casual" about the rescue of the SIEV 358 "if it had been any other kind of boat".

Today's start of the inquest comes as authorities yesterday intercepted another two boats, carrying a total of 162 people.

Abbas, 32, a Shia asylum-seeker from Parachinar, in the tribal region of Pakistan, survived for 14 hours on the upturned hull of the SIEV 358 before being rescued by a German cargo ship, operating under the direction of Australian rescue authorities.

Now living in Melbourne where he has applied for permanent residency, he said yesterday the voyage was bad from the beginning.

It was Abbas's second attempt to reach Australia. In April 2011, his first boat had capsized near an island and he had been returned to detention in Indonesia, where, he says, asylum-seekers were treated "like animals". Indonesian guards told them: "Die here, we don't care."

Along with many others, he escaped and paid a "famous" Hazara people-smuggler by the name of Irfan, now in jail, $5500, raised by his family, to try again.

Late on the night of Sunday, June 17, last year, more than 200 people were taken in small boats to a larger fishing boat, sailing just after 1am. Abbas was alarmed, saying: "Please, for God's sake, in this boat we will all die."

After four hours, they were stuck in sand. Fishermen took asylum-seekers off the boat, to lighten it enough to re-float. Fear spread. One of the five crew left, along with a small group of Hazara asylum-seekers. One of the asylum-seekers contacted Irfan and told him they would all die on such a boat. Irfan assured him another boat would be sent to lighten the load along with 50 more life jackets - a callous lie.

The weather was dire and Abbas was violently ill. He sent a message to a friend, who told him to believe in God. As conditions deteriorated, an asylum-seeker managed to phone Indonesian police. The phone was passed to the multi-lingual Abbas, who told them in Bahasa and English, "Please help us".

About 4.30am on June 20, water flooded into the SIEV 358. The belief among asylum-seekers is that an elderly crewman fell asleep and that faulty pumps broke down. Abbas, jolted awake as the boat sank, was hurled into the water. In the moonlight, he could see people scattered in the water. He heard them cry out. He felt a cord around his legs and found it was a rope still fastened to the broken boat. He pulled himself through the waves to the wreckage and was hauled onto the upturned hull where he and 40 others stayed for the next 14 hours.

During those long hours, he said, people continued to drown. Choking back tears, he says that, after surviving for 14 hours, three men were also killed at the last, when they were crushed between the wreckage and the German cargo ship loaded with cars and bound for Singapore that rescued them just on dusk, June 21.

In his submission, Mr Kevin details how the first distress calls from the SIEV 358, later codenamed Kaniva, were received by AMSA on Tuesday, June 19, about 10pm. No location was given. Three and a half hours later, AMSA received further calls. The location was given as 38 nautical miles south of the Indonesian coastline.

The vessel was told to return to Indonesia and AMSA advised Basarnas, which accepted co-ordination of a search and rescue response at 10.52am, more than nine hours after the second distress call.

Mr Kevin says that "adequate and accessible" Australian border protection command resources were in the vicinity engaged in normal surveillance, detection and interception operations when AMSA received the second distress call giving the vessel's location at 1.30am, June 20.

He writes that "there is no public record, ever, of any successful Indonesian search and rescue operation of a boat signalling or believed to be in distress in international waters south of Indonesia" and asks whether AMSA "acted responsibly' in passing responsibility to Basarnas.

Mr Kevin also criticises the adequacy of Australia's response. He says the vessel was located by an Australian surveillance aircraft at 5pm, June 20, travelling slowly south, and that AMSA received two calls from the boat, at 9.30pm on the same day and on the next morning before another surveillance flight was charged with finding it.

About 3pm, June 21, a Dash 8 aircraft located the vessel 110 nautical miles north of Christmas Island. It was upturned, with about 40 people on the hull and many others in the water. At 10.41pm, Basarnas asked AMSA to take operational command.

In the Australian search and rescue operation that followed, 109 people were plucked from the sea, 17 bodies were recovered, and are the subject of next week's inquest, and the bodies of an estimated 73 others were not recovered.

Survivors have told The Australian that men and women died constantly in the 14 hours after the boat capsized.


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