Shackled Indonesia could not save boat

Natalie O'Brien
June 24, 2012

INDONESIA'S search and rescue agency is so under-resourced it probably never had the capability to mount an effective rescue for the asylum-seeker boat that capsized with 204 people on board, defence and maritime experts have said.

''If they even had something to go out and have a look, they would be doing well,'' said Derek Woolner, from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

''We have probably had too great an expectation of the Indonesians and their capabilities,'' said Mr Woolner, a former federal government adviser on defence and foreign affairs.

As the rescue mission for those missing continued yesterday, Tony Kevin, a former Australian diplomat and author of the new book The Reluctant Rescuers, about asylum seeker boats lost at sea, has slammed the Australian government's response to the sinking.

He said the Australian authorities know the Indonesians have limited resources. ''We should have offered our help immediately. This represents a return to the life-threatening protocols and practices of the Howard government in 2001.''

The Afghan community leader Hassan Ghulam also expressed concerns about asking the Indonesians for help because, apart from their lack of resources, he said many officials were in cahoots with the smugglers.

In a new book, The People Smuggler, the Iraqi refugee turned smuggler Ali Al Jenabi reveals how he had to pay Indonesian police and military personnel to allow his boats safe passage out of Indonesia.

The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, said yesterday the Coalition was willing to discuss with the government the political impasse on asylum seekers, as the Liberal backbencher Mal Washer and independent Tony Windsor called for a compromise on refugee policy and the Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, also called for a speedy resolution on asylum-seeker policy.

Coincidentally, the boat that capsized on Thursday was close to the spot where the SIEV X sank more than a decade ago, drowning 353 asylum seekers. Since the SIEV X tragedy in October 2001, about eight boats have sunk or gone missing.

In October 2009, a boat with 105 Hazaras and three Indonesian crew sank on its way to Christmas Island. In that case Australian authorities, despite knowing the boat was in distress, waited almost four hours before alerting rescuers.

Passengers on board the boat that sank on Thursday first alerted Australian authorities that the boat was having difficulties on Tuesday night. Documents from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's Rescue Co-ordination Centre show it was told about 1.30am on Wednesday that the boat had suffered hull damage and was taking on water.

But despite asking the Indonesian search and rescue agency Basarnas to take over the emergency, it failed to send any boats to the area and said that its attempts to contact the boat were ''unlucky''.

A refugee advocate, Ian Rintoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition, said the disaster demanded an ''urgent independent inquiry''.

''We need to know precisely what are the rescue protocols with Indonesia and whether the government's policy attitude to 'stop the boats' has influenced safety-of-life-at-sea responses by Australia. Why would AMSA instruct a distressed asylum boat to turn around rather than mobilise a proper rescue operation?''


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