Cries for help just 'refugee patter'

Nicolas Perpitch
June 27, 2013 12:00AM

REPEATED calls for help from asylum-seekers who claimed their boat was taking on water and sinking with more than 200 people on board were not considered distress calls by Australian search and rescue authorities.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority's manager for search and rescue operations, Alan Lloyd, told the coronial inquest yesterday into the sinking of SIEV 358 last June that asylum-seeker boats often gave misleading information.

Mr Lloyd also said classified information, which could not be publicly released, backed the assessment the boat was not initially in distress. "The nature of the information was irrefutable. The vessel was not in distress," Mr Lloyd told West Australian Coroner Alastair Hope.

It is believed 112 of the 212 people on board the Kaniva drowned when it sank 110 nautical miles off Christmas Island on June 21.

Mr Lloyd said claims made by those aboard in satellite calls to the Rescue Co-ordination Centre Australia -- that the vessel was old, taking on a lot of water, going down and that they needed help -- constituted "refugee patter" that needed to be assessed for accuracy.

"Unfortunately, refugee vessels tend to follow a script," he said.

Since August 2010, Mr Lloyd said, 209 of the 272 asylum vessels that had arrived in Australia had "interacted" with rescue authorities and all but eight, which had foundered, had arrived safely.

"When misleading information is provided, what can a search and rescue authority do?" he asked.

In his opening address on Tuesday to the inquest into the deaths of 17 people whose bodies were recovered, the counsel assisting the inquest, Marco Tedeschi, accused AMSA of not responding properly to distress calls from the boat.

Mr Tedeschi suggested AMSA had not complied with its obligations under a 2004 agreement to issue an emergency broadcast and start a search and rescue operation.

But Mr Lloyd said that the agency had assessed that the conversations with the boat passengers were not distress calls, where there would be reasonable certainty a vessel was threatened by grave and imminent danger and required immediate assistance.

He said the calm tone of the callers did not indicate distress.

As the boat was still progressing at 2.5 knots, "its actions were contrary to its requests for assistance".

The agency was in an "uncertainty phase" where it was assessing information and therefore did not need to begin a rescue operation.

Mr Lloyd agreed with Mr Tedeschi there was nothing to stop AMSA making an offer to Indonesia to help launch a full search and rescue mission, after the Indonesians took control of the incident, but said this was not considered necessary at the time.

AMSA issued an emergency broadcast to merchant vessels about two days after the first call from the boat, after it was spotted capsized by an Australian surveillance aircraft.

AMSA barrister Stephen Owen-Conway said there was no foundation in law for Mr Tedeschi's suggestion AMSA should have acted sooner, after Indonesia assumed responsibility for the operation.


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