New Claim On Boat Tragedy
12 May 2002
The navy was prevented from trying to rescue 353 asylum seekers who later drowned because a senior government official withheld vital information, a retired diplomat claims.
At least 150 children were among those who died when their boat sank on October 20 last year.
The tragedy was by far the worst involving a people-smuggling boat trying to reach Australia.
Forty-four survivors were in the water for 22 hours before being rescued.
The former ambassador to Poland and Cambodia, Tony Kevin, claims many of the asylum seekers could hve been saved by an Australian navy ship which was four to five hours sailing time from the stricken vessel.
Mr Kevin claims the decision not to tell any of the arms of Australia's border protection network, including the navy, about intelligence information of approaching overloaded vessel could only have been made at a senior political level.
The allegations were made during the senate Committee hearing into the children overboard.
Mr Kevin has told the enquiry someone in the government issued an order saying "Don't tell the navy because if we do, they will have to honour their safety-of-life at sea obligation".
The Howard government has consistently denied any responsibility for the tragedy saying it was too close to Indonesia for Australia to have intervened.
But Rear Admiral Geoffrey Smith, commander of Operation Relex - a military operation to detect and repel asylum seekers - said the navy would have tried to rescue the vessel regardless of it's position.
"If we knew that it was happening - whether it was in Indonesian waters or in International waters - we would have gone to the rescue of the people", he told the enquiry.
And the exact location of the boat's sinking is also in doubt.
Mr Kevin says it was much further south than the government has maintained.
He said this week the extent of the tragedy has only now begun to emerge and could become the focus of the enquiry.
"This is not what the children overboard committee was first set up to examine, but it might in the end prove to be the committee's most important task," he said.
"This could be Australia's Watergate."
But a government spokesman said Defence Minister Robert Hill wrote to the Opposition Leader Simon Crean saying the government did not know the boat was in trouble and that if it had it would have acted.
The people on board the boat were mostly from Iraq, Afghanistan and Algeria.
Survivors told how they watched helplessly as their children died.
"I boarded the boat with 15 other family members. Nine drowned and six remained." a male survivor recalled.
"We clung on to a plank of timber for 20 hours, drifting in the water.
"Something I witnessed left a very strange impression. A baby with it's umbilical cord still attached to the mother was among those who drowned."
Another man described his family's fate.
"I kept two of my children on my shoulder all night," he said. It was raining heavily. I did not know where my wife was."
"One of the children died in the morning from thirst. The other child survived."
A third man recalled seeing his wife and 20 day old baby fall off the boat and perish in the water.
"When the boat capsized I lost my sanity," he said. I was weeping over my misfortune that I did not die with them."
"I began searching for them. Every time I saw a child, I could not differentiate between it and my children. My wife and children stayed under the boat. They never came out."
"I was not wearing a lifejacket. I was praying for my own death. I was dragged under the water three times. I do no know what kept pushing me to stay alive."
"Anywhere I placed my arm, a drowned child or woman would emerge and lift my arm."