Indonesia ill-equipped to rescue asylum boats

Michael Bachelard
SMH
June 27, 2012

THE Indonesian search and rescue agency Basarnas is hopelessly under-equipped for ocean rescue and needs help from Australia if it is to save asylum seekers from dying at sea, its chief has told the Herald.

Vice Marshal Daryatmo, the head of Basarnas, has confirmed his agency has only one small fibreglass-hulled rescue boat, based in Jakarta, to deploy in the ocean between Java and Christmas Island.

The director of operations, Air First Marshal Sunarbowo Sandi, of Basarnas, said that ship could not venture out in waves higher than two or three metres.

''What we have now in search and rescue in Jakarta is not a big capability it means there is a lot of restriction,'' he said.

Despite this, for 44 hours last week the Australian Maritime Safety Authority left Basarnas in charge of the search and rescue operation for a leaking asylum seeker vessel making its way in heavy seas to Christmas Island.

That boat eventually sank at the halfway mark of the passage, claiming an estimated 90 lives, without the Indonesians ever having located it.

The Australian rescue authority was in contact by phone with the ship but Mr Sandi said yesterday they had not passed the phone number to the Indonesians.

''We are blind. We are blinded by the lack of information,'' Mr Sandi said yesterday.

''Honestly, in our position it seemed that Indonesia was cornered providing unclear information in the first place [then] urging us to be reactive.''

Indonesian sources have told the Herald that Basarnas held crisis talks on Monday with a delegation from Australian Customs and Border Protection. It is understood the Indonesians suggested that Australia should supply a 60-metre catamaran, suitable for the ocean, to help rescue sinking boats in the future. This would mirror the Howard government's gift in 2002 to the Indonesian police of five boats to help fight people smugglers.

Asked about the idea of Australia supplying boats to Indonesia, Mr Sandi said: ''We have to sit down, talk government to government about this, because it has happened many times and it should be taken seriously.''

Mr Daryatmo and Mr Sandi have confirmed there are no ships that are based on the southern coast of Java. This means they must all sail from the ports in the capital, Jakarta, several hours away on the north coast.

Mr Sandi said the search and rescue team should have at least four vessels on the south of the island of Java. The Indonesian navy has confirmed that it sent two ships, at the request of Basarnas, to look for the sinking vessel last week, but gave up when they could not find it.

A spokesman for the Indonesian Western Fleet, Lieutenant-Colonel Agus Cahyono, insisted that search and rescue was not ''our main job''.

''You have to understand these warships were on their mission to do sea patrol. They weren't designed to conduct search and rescue operation. It's not their main job,'' he said.

A spokesperson for the Australian Customs and Border Protection would not confirm Monday's meeting, saying only that representatives from the Australian embassy ''regularly meet with their counterparts in Indonesia, including those in Basarnas''.

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