Government rejects delay on boat response

Andrew Drummond
September 29, 2013 12:52PM

IMMIGRATION Minister Scott Morrison rejects claims the Australian government delayed its response to distress calls from an asylum seeker boat that sank off Indonesia, leaving scores of people dead or missing.

More than 20 people, including children, drowned and a further 30 are still missing after the boat carrying about 80 people broke up in rough seas off the coast of Java on Friday.

Survivors say they called Australian authorities for help on Thursday, but no one came.

"The government completely rejects allegations of a 26-hour delay in response to this tragic incident by Australian agencies," Mr Morrison's office said in a statement issued on Sunday.

"Suggestions Australian authorities did not respond to this incident appropriately are absolutely and totally wrong.

"Australian agencies acted on the information provided on this tragic incident."

One survivor told ABC TV that a GPS location was sent to Australian authorities when multiple distress calls were made on Thursday.

"We called the Australian government for 24 hours. They were telling us 'we're coming, we're coming, we're coming', and they didn't come," he said.

"This is because of the Australian government. I want them to know that," he said of the tragedy.

Mr Morrison said initial searches failed to find the boat, which was reported to be about 25 nautical miles off the Indonesian coast.

"The Australians who work for our rescue and border protection agencies respond to all such events with great professionalism and a keenly felt sense of duty, as they did on this occasion," the statement said.

Rough seas off Java on Sunday continued to hamper rescue efforts and Indonesian authorities were expecting more bodies to wash up on shore, the ABC reported.

Australian Greens leader Christine Milne called for an immediate inquiry into the government's involvement in the "heartbreaking" tragedy.

"I would expect that to happen before the next parliament sits," Senator Milne told Sky Agenda on Sunday.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott jets to Jakarta on Monday where he is due to meet with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

People smuggling is expected to be high on the agenda for discussions between the leaders.

"This is a tragic event," Mr Morrison's statement said.

"The Australian government's thoughts and sympathies are with those affected by this tragedy. The government will continue to provide any assistance required by the Indonesian Government."

Labor leadership candidate Bill Shorten criticised the Abbott government's approach to asylum seekers and to Indonesia, saying "sooner or later they're going to work out that three-word slogans don't solve issues, and don't solve refugees or immigration".

"I think all Australians are alarmed when you hear reports of deaths at sea," Mr Shorten told ABC television on Sunday.

"I do think that Mr Abbott has made a mistake by not explaining what he knows so far because I think it is important that we reinforce confidence in the Australian authorities on the front line.

"I think the Australian electorate will give them some grace to work out what they're doing, and the initial stumbles.

"But not working with the Indonesians closely - you don't need to be the foreign minister to work out that's important."


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