Decency all at sea as another boatload sinks

Michael Bachelard
Age
June 24, 2012

Opinion

Did politics play a part in the latest asylum seeker tragedy?

AUSTRALIAN and Indonesian authorities both have serious questions to answer about how a boat carrying more than 200 asylum seekers was allowed to wallow in rough seas, without assistance, while it slowly foundered and sank last week.

At the head of this list of questions is whether the febrile nature of asylum seeker politics in Australia made rescuers reluctant to act before about 90 people died.

An incomplete series of faxes, released to the ABC, between the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's rescue co-ordination centre and its Indonesia counterpart, Basarnas, raise significant concerns. The first of these faxes, sent at 2.08am Melbourne time on Wednesday to Basarnas, reveals that asylum seekers on a boat carrying 204 men had phoned the Australian Maritime Safety Authority saying the boat had ''suffered hull damage and was taking on water''.

It was said to have left Jakarta and to be 38 nautical miles south of the Indonesian mainland. The Australians' advice to the passengers was to head back to Indonesia. This is something asylum seekers are reluctant to do. The refugee grapevine is full of stories of people languishing in detention, years away from their goal of reaching Australia. So the boat ploughed on, powered, it seems, by little more than the desperation of its passengers.

About six hours after receiving the first fax, Indonesian search and rescue put out a bulletin asking passing ships to watch out for a stricken vessel. It also sent its own small fibreglass-hulled boat to have a look. But that boat, according to spokesman Gagah Prakoso, was not suitable for ''open seas''.

Confusion generated by a separate boat said to be missing at the same time means it may not even have been searching the right area. Whatever the reason, it found nothing and returned to base.

More than 24 hours later, at 12.41pm on Thursday, the Australian rescue centre sent another fax to Basarnas. The people on the boat had phoned again - the ship was travelling south at a pathetic two to three knots, ''while making telephone calls to [the rescue co-ordination centre] saying they are taking on water''. It was clearly in trouble.

''RCC passes this information to your centre for action,'' the Australians told Basarnas.

What the Indonesians did then was unclear. At some point two Indonesian navy vessels were dispatched but turned back when the seas became too rough. It seems that they never informed Basarnas of this fact.

Australian Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare has said that at some point Australian planes found where the boat was, but it was not visibly in distress. Rescue boats were ''pre-positioned'' but it is unclear where.

By later Thursday afternoon, the situation was critical. The vessel was sinking, and, by this time, the Australians had clearly given up hope that Indonesian authorities would, or could, do anything useful to help. Clare says the Australian boats moved towards the scene ''as soon as we identified a capsized boat''. Late that afternoon, the news broke in Australia that the vessel was sinking and rescue ships were on the way. When they arrived, the asylum seeker boat was upturned. Some of the passengers were standing on the hull, scores more were in the water. Many were probably already dead.

At 10.23pm on Thursday another fax went to Basarnas saying, finally: ''Australia hereby accepts co-ordination for the search and rescue incident involving the upturned unidentified distress vessel.'' It asks if an Indonesian vessel is heading for the area and ends, somewhat plaintively, ''Please acknowledge receipt of this message.''

From Wednesday morning the Australian Maritime Safety Authority knew the boat was travelling agonisingly slowly in the opposite direction from the one they had recommended. They knew that the passengers were ''fearing for their safety'', and they knew for 30 hours or more that the boat was taking on water. Yet for all this time, the only action the Australian authority took was ''monitoring the incident that you [the Indonesians] are co-ordinating''.

If the Australians were truly relying on the Indonesians to act, why were they so profoundly ignorant of their counterparts' lack of capacity to do anything useful? Yes, the boat was in the Indonesian search and rescue zone, but so, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's website, is Christmas Island itself. This is no reason not to rescue a distressed ship inside that zone, and neither would the Indonesians have stood in their way.

Or perhaps the navy and the public servants involved were willing the boat to be somebody else's problem. This would be understandable in the current political environment. Tony Abbott is determined to make boat arrivals a political issue. His immigration spokesman made hay last year about how much it cost to fly asylum seekers to the funerals of their own family members.

Abbott has vowed to order the navy to tow seaworthy boats back to Indonesian waters, a policy the Indonesians say is unworkable but which is increasing the political cost of each arrival to an unpopular Prime Minister.

Perhaps AMSA staff thought the distress of the asylum seeker vessel was a hoax, an attempt by the people smugglers to get their cargo just halfway to Australia and let the Australian navy do the rest.

Judgments on any of this would be purely speculative at this stage. But if an inquiry ultimately finds that the Maritime Safety Authority even for a second considered the dire political scene in Canberra as they made life-and-death decisions in this case, then the politicians who have engineered this ridiculous and deadly situation should be profoundly ashamed. If nothing else, this tragedy should spur them on to negotiate a better approach.

Michael Bachelard is Indonesia correspondent.

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