Stricken asylum-seeker boat doomed by confusion

The Australian
October 01, 2013 12:00AM

SHALLOW waters and confusion about the location of a stricken asylum boat were among the reasons rescuers were unable to save dozens of asylum-seekers who drowned at sea on Friday.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison gave the most detailed account yet of the final hours of the asylum boat that sank just off the coast of Java last week, claiming more than 50 lives.

The briefing came as Lebanese media named the smuggler who organised the doomed passage as Abu Saleh, an Iraqi who operated a people-smuggling business from a Jakarta jail cell. Lebanon's Annahar news site said Saleh was jailed 10 months ago for killing a man in a Jakarta nightclub and had reportedly sent about 500 Lebanese nationals to Australia.

Mr Morrison yesterday described suggestions Australian rescuers were slow to act as "offensive", saying the first authorities heard of the foundering vessel was when one of its passengers phoned a friend in Melbourne on Friday, just hours before the boat capsized. That friend contacted the Australian Federal Police on Christmas Island at 7.57am. The AFP then called the Rescue Co-ordination Centre.

Indonesia's search-and-rescue agency Basarnas was contacted but said it was unable to take responsibility for the search, despite the boat's last reported location being just 15km from the Indonesian shoreline.

Within hours Customs planes went to search for the boat, the location of which was relayed to Australian authorities by passengers who used text messages to phone in co-ordinates.An alert was sent out to merchant vessels in the area but the shallow waters meant responding vessels could not assist.

Survivors of the tragedy insist authorities were contacted on Thursday, a day before the boat went down.Air Marshal Mark Binskin suggested confusion on the boat could explain the discrepancy. "There was a large level of confusion and disorientation (on the vessel)," he said. "But there is no record of any contact before then."

Air Marshal Binskin said 31 bodies had been recovered and 22 people rescued, although Indonesian sources put the figure at 28. Most of those killed were Lebanese and many were children.

The Coalition revealed four asylum boats bearing 173 asylum-seekers arrived during the past week, a continuation of the decline in boat arrivals that began with Labor's PNG solution.But the figures did not include a boatload of about 81 people, including crew, who disembarked at Christmas Island yesterday after being rescued by the navy.

Among last week's arrivals were 18 Indians who were "screened out" of the refugee processing system and were expected to be repatriated, and seven West Papuans stopped in the Torres Strait and sent to PNG the following day.

In the past week 128 have been sent for offshore processing: 68 to Manus Island and 60 to Nauru.

Basarnas created further confusion about the circumstances of the Agrabinta disaster when its head of operations, Major General Sumartono, denied receiving any warning from Australia that the boat was in distress. The message Basarnas received on Friday morning from the Australian Maritime Safety Agency was about "a different case", Major General Sumartono insisted.This contradicts what The Australian and other news media were told by local officials and Basarnas operational staff on Saturday and Sunday.


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