Heat put on response to distress calls

Kate Bastians
The West Australian Updated August 14, 2012, 2:44 am

A boat with 65 asylum seekers believed to have sunk six weeks ago was one of three to go missing without trace on the way to Australia in the past three years.

The report by the asylum-seeker expert panel said more than 100 Hazara asylum seekers were presumed drowned when their boat went missing in October 2009 and 97 Iraqis on a boat lost in November 2010.

It said about 964 asylum seekers on 12 boats either died or were presumed drowned in incidents between October 2001 and June.

But the death toll is closer to 1030 given the panel's chief Angus Houston acknowledged the 65 who disappeared after their boat left Indonesia on June 28, as revealed in _The Weekend West _, were not in the report's count.

Author and former Australian ambassador Tony Kevin highlights the losses in his new book Reluctant Rescuers, in which he criticises Customs and Border Protection for its "tardy and inefficient responses" to the boats.

Citing answers to questions at a Senate estimates committee, Kevin wrote about how it took customs officials 3? hours to begin a search after they learnt that a boat which left Indonesia on October 2, 2009, was in distress.

The log revealed that Customs had information from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta about noon "that the vessel was 100km from Christmas Island and taking on water". But Customs did not pass on the co-ordinates to search agency the Australian Maritime Safety Authority until 3.33pm.

Documents Fairfax journalist Natalie O'Brien uncovered show that when the Indonesian navy reached the site three hours later, nothing was found.

Kevin also wrote about Federal Government unwillingness to disclose what it knew about the boat.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesman refused to say whether authorities were aware of, or made any contact with, the latest boat to go missing and stressed authorities did not "recklessly and wilfully endanger the lives of those in peril on the sea".

Refugee advocates have renewed calls for an inquiry into Customs' responses to boats, including one which capsized on June 21, claiming 90 lives. The Maritime Safety Authority took a distress call from the boat two days earlier but directed it to return to Indonesia.


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