Inside AMSA - Australia's search and rescue response to asylum seekers

9 August 2013

Jane Norman reported this story

TONY EASTLEY: This week the number of asylum seekers who arrived by boat since Labor was elected went beyond 50,000.

Australia's search and rescue agency, AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority), gets distress calls almost daily from asylum seekers on over-crowded and unseaworthy boats.

Those on board usually speak little or no English, can't navigate and have never been on a boat before.

As Jane Norman reports, it's AMSA's job to locate them and coordinate the response with Customs and Border Protection.

JANE NORMAN: Wednesday the 20th of June 2012. A phone call to the rescue coordination centre in Canberra.

OPERATOR: Australian Search and Rescue, Mel speaking. May I help you?

BOAT PASSENGER: We are in water, we are at sea and our ship has problems (inaudible).

JANE NORMAN: The passenger was on board asylum seeker vessel 358, somewhere between Indonesia and Christmas Island.

He'd call AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) another 15 times over several hours before operators could determine the call was genuine, pinpoint their location and launch a rescue.

BOAT PASSENGER: (Inaudible) this is an asylum seeker ship.

OPERATOR 2: What direction are you heading?

BOAT PASSENGER: We are going to Christmas Island, Christmas Island.

OPERATOR 2: Christmas Island.

JANE NORMAN: This operation ended in disaster. The boat capsized. A hundred and 10 people were rescued but more than 100 died.

Fortunately most of AMSA's efforts don't end this way. On the day I visited the rescue centre another operation was underway.

ALLAN LOYD: About six o'clock this morning the staff in the centre received a call from a vessel.

JANE NORMAN: Alan Lloyd is the manager of search and rescue operations.

ALLAN LOYD: The vessel indicated to us that it had some concerns for its engine, some water on board the vessel. And then we used a number of means to obtain its location.

JANE NORMAN: More often than not, the boats are equipped with a GPS device. On this occasion though, the caller gave AMSA their satellite phone number. AMSA then used a phone company in London to track the signal and before long it had the boat's location.

ALAN LLOYD: And HMAS Albany responded, in fact is now on scene assessing the situation.

JANE NORMAN: AMSA responds to more than 8,000 air and maritime incidents each year. About 500 of those turn into full scale search and rescues.

But when it comes to asylum seekers the agency has been criticised for not responding to distress calls quickly enough.

Alan Lloyd rejects that.

ALAN LLOYD: Normally a vessel would contact us, we'd be able to establish two-way communications quite quickly. They would be able to give us their position and an accurate assessment of their needs.

With refugee vessels unfortunately they don't have that training or knowledge so therefore it takes a lot long to actually get the information that we need to allow us to start a response.

JANE NORMAN: But more and more asylum seeker boats are calling for help even when they don't necessarily need it. AMSA says over two years it received more than 200 distress calls. Of those only eight were in danger.

John Young is the general manager of the Emergency Response Division.

JOHN YOUNG: There would be a number of incidents where a war ship turns up to an asylum seeker vessel and it's called for help. They board it, they find there doesn't appear to be anything wrong. So there's no question that that actually happens, that they call for assistance early, if you like.

On the other hand, these are novice seafarers.

TONY EASTLEY: AMA's John Young ending that report by Jane Norman.


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