Time for scrutiny on boat rescues

July 28, 2013
Jack Waterford
Canberra Times

No one responds with more indignation than the Customs, or Defence, or Immigration, when anyone suggests that they lack diligence in rescuing boat people in the waters between Indonesia and Christmas Island, but it really is about time that someone with a top security clearance had a close look at indolence, procedural and bureaucratic delay, and perhaps sheer bloody mindedness in Canberra that seems to percolate so many of the decisions to initiate rescues.

I'm not talking of those actually doing the rescues. I have heard many stories of the bravery shown and the compassion and stress experienced by our sailors, and others, including those in Customs vessels; they have been frantic to save lives. Over the years ahead we will come to see that the battle-like sights of some of the rescues will produce a toll of post-traumatic stress and other psychological injuries as bad as, or worse, than that encountered in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.

There are many in the border protection racket who are closer to Canberra and away from these sights, whose pattern of response to emergencies, or to the asking of any questions about their activities, ought to make Australians, even those opposed to boat people, feel very uneasy.

We are never told all of the facts - partly because there are some national security secrets involved, such as how well our intelligence authorities can monitor communications in Indonesia, or how well secret surveillance equipment allows us to know more than we pretend about the movement of ships, people smugglers, and asylum seekers. Every time I have read - as I read on Friday - a censored report on a drowning incident, the chronological accounts have blacked-out spaces indicating that we knew before we officially knew.

Australians are not told about the intelligence-gathering, sabotage and disruption operations conducted by Australian Federal Police, or the Secret Intelligence Service, and their agents, informers and contacts in the Indonesian (and Sri Lankan) police and intelligence community, and the refugee and people-smuggling community.

On Friday, the senior Western Australian police investigator into the drowning at sea of perhaps 94 people in June last year complained to the West Australian coroner that Customs officials had concealed from him until the last day of the inquest the existence of an internal inquiry into the only partially successful rescue operations. When it was finally handed over, it was, of course, heavily redacted, to protect the national security.

Counsel for Customs and Border Control told the coroner that the report had been withheld on the orders of an unnamed AFP officer.

But even the censored report is revealing, and depressing. As opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison has pointed out, some people in the system, who have grown cynical about rescues, have joked about asylum seekers thinking Customs or the Navy is a water taxi service. Some boats ring the AMSA Rescue and Co-ordination Centre, or Border Protection Command by mobile, reporting themselves in difficulties soon after they lose sight of Indonesia.

Meanwhile, it is punctilious in its view that Indonesia should rescue people in its rescue zone, even when we know they are not up to it. Experience has shown the Indonesians are inefficient as rescuers even when, or if, they are trying. Moreover they lack equipment, including apparently, the capacity to notify passing shipping.

At the inquest, West Australian police have criticised Customs for not being proactive, and for passing the buck to Indonesia even when it knew it lacked the capacity to do a rescue.

In this case, the RCC got its first phone call about midnight on June 19, and soon after, the RCC told the Indonesians. There were more calls, but apart from advising the folk to go back, we did nothing until about 17 hours later when CBC aircraft saw the vessel moving southwards towards Christmas Island. It was low in the water but ''Australian agencies assessed that it was not in distress''.

Australia is getting annoyed about ''SIEVs claiming to be in distress while continuing to make good progress towards Australia'', the report, known as the Buckpitt Report, says. ''SIEVs are overloaded, under-equipped, under-skilled and they act contrary to safe practice. This complicates judgments about what are necessary or unnecessary calls for assistance. Examining the statistics in relation to these incidents suggests the number of unnecessary alerts has increased in 2012 (in line with the increased number of SIEVs) but the proportion of unnecessary alerts has not

''The review considered the possibility of developing guidelines to help distinguish a genuine or false request for assistance. This would be an extremely difficult and hazardous exercise which would introduce new risks of such guidance being used too simplistically.''

No chance of anything simplistic in Canberra. And if we get anything wrong, with fatal results, it is, apparently the ''collective'' fault of boat people for making unnecessary calls for help.

Although surveillance aircraft reported the boat low in the water, with someone climbing on to the roof, ''a meeting of the People Smuggling Operations Group chaired by Customs and Border Protection collectively assessed the vessel was not in immediate need of assistance''. The review thinks this judgment - self-consciously not attached to any participant - was ''reasonable'', even if it proved to be tragically wrong. There will be no consequences, or accountability, in Canberra to compound the suffering of those who died.

Over the next few hours after this collective decision, there were four more calls, all saying the boat was taking on water, but the operations experts, perceiving that the boat was still moving, decided that the claims - and their reading of photos from the Customs aircraft - ''suggested the claims were either exaggerated, or simply untrue.''

Not for another 20 hours did anyone check. By then, admittedly, two Navy vessels had been ''pre-positioned'' at the edge of the Australian zone, to intervene if tasked to do so. But at 3pm the next day the BPC found the boat on routine patrol.

The boat, about halfway to Christmas Island if still in the Indonesian search and rescue zone, was upside down with about 75 people in the water and on the upturned hull. The aircraft saw a large number of groups of people - up to 10 - in the water within a five-kilometre radius. Only then was the alarm raised and ships sent to assist. A nearby bulk carrier, said to have been ''waiting for authorisation from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority'', went, along with two other merchant vessels. These took, respectively, two, 2 and three hours, but all were there before HMAS Wollongong arrived. Half the passengers had drowned.

The review complacently concluded ''that the timeliness of the response by BPC, RCC Australia, and [an agency whose identity was censored] was reasonable''.

Thank heavens for that! We can all sleep more safely, even as the sailors under the command of these folk, and the poor boat people themselves, suffer the nightmares or die.

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