Asylum distress call assessment 'classified'

Natasha Boddy
The West Australian
July 24, 2013, 12:27 pm

The head of Australia maritime search and rescue operations has claimed he cannot reveal how authorities assess the veracity of distress calls from asylum seeker boats in case it gives "away how people smugglers can manipulate the system".

Australian Maritime Safety Authority manager of search and rescue operations Allan Lloyd is the first witness to give evidence at the resumption of an inquest into the death of passengers aboard the SIEV 358 in Indonesian waters last year.

Mr Lloyd today defended Australian authorities handling of distress calls from the ill-fated boat, saying he believed they had met their international obligations and if authorities had been given different information of an "actual distress", an urgency broadcast would have been issued.

The inquest was told last month the Rescue Co-Ordination Centre of Australia was the first agency to hear of the SIEV 358 but had not considered it in distress or launched a rescue response before Indonesia accepted responsibility for the boat 11 hours later.

It was only after an Australian aircraft spotted people clinging to the overturned hull on June 21 that Australia issued an urgency broadcast and took over the co-ordinating role from Indonesia’s Basarnas rescue agency.

The inquest was told today that Australian authorities had information that Indonesia had only limited capability to assist on June 21.

The inquest has also been told by Mr Lloyd that many calls for help from asylum-seeker boats followed a script and the claims had to be verified rather than immediately taking them to be genuine.

But Mr Lloyd would today not reveal how authorities assessed the veracity of the calls, saying it was "classified" information which if revealed, could tell people smugglers how to manipulate the system.

Mr Lloyd revealed it took almost 16 hours for Australian authorities to obtain the satellite phone number for SIEV 358 and he indicated that there were numerous attempts to make contact but "our knowledge was they wouldn’t accept our calls".

Under questioning, Mr Lloyd maintained the agency took all distress calls seriously and he found the question "offensive".

He told the inquest AMSA managed 8000 incidents a year and had a 99.6 per cent success rate. The inquest is expected to hear from some of the survivors tomorrow.


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