Blunder revives SIEV X memories

Natalie O'Brien
4 June 2012
Brisbane Times


THE Customs and Border Protection Service has admitted bungling its response to an asylum seeker boat which is believed to have sunk, drowning 105 Hazara Afghans and three Indonesian crew, because it had ''no experience in managing'' such situations.

The revelations, contained in Customs documents known as ''back pocket briefs'', also show that Customs said all agencies involved were ''unprepared'' for the search and rescue which involved classified information about the boat in foreign waters.

The documents show that, almost a decade after the tragic sinking of a boat - the SIEV X - in 2001 with 353 people on board, authorities were repeating the same mistakes.

The Herald has obtained internal Customs documents, under freedom of information, which show Customs and other agencies involved had no policies or procedures in place at the time the boat was in distress on October 3, 2009.

''These circumstances were unfamiliar to officers from all agencies involved. Additionally, agencies were procedurally unprepared for these circumstances,'' the brief said.

The document reveals there was ''no protocol requiring the immediate transfer of information regarding distressed vessels'' to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and that ''it may be inferred from the chronology that Customs and Border Protection was slow in passing the information to [AMSA]''.

Yesterday The Sun-Herald revealed that a spy alerted the Australian Federal Police to the boat, which had left Indonesia headed for Christmas Island, was in distress and taking on water.

But it was almost four hours before the federal police and Customs agreed to release the information to maritime safety to mount a rescue, because they had to agree on a ''set of words'' that could be disclosed to reveal the boat was taking on water without revealing it was a federal police spy who had tipped them off.

The emergency eerily echoed the SIEV X sinking, which resulted in the drowning of the 353 asylum seekers.

A Senate inquiry into that sinking, which became known as ''A certain maritime incident'',

was told by Rear-Admiral Marcus Bonser that the federal police had received information about the SIEV X being overdue but asked that the transmission be delayed for about four hours until they ''put together some suitable words'' that could be released to other agencies including search and rescue, because its information had come from a classified source.

At that time Admiral Bonser agreed a lapse of four hours could be critical if it was known the boat was in peril or had foundered. At that stage it was known only that SIEV X was overdue.

The Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said she found it ''troubling that given the tragedy of the SIEV X and the subsequent federal review into it, agencies charged with patrolling our coastlines and searching for asylum seeker boats aren't regularly trained for such incidents''.

''Australian customs and search and rescue agencies ought to be training with their Indonesian counterparts so they are able to rapidly respond to future maritime mishaps,'' she said.

The opposition spokesman on justice, customs and border protection, Michael Keenan, said he would be asking more questions of the government. ''We would like to get to the bottom of what has really happened,'' he said.

The documents reveal that since the Herald began its inquiries and lodged freedom-of-information requests last year, Customs had overhauled its operations, including measures to ensure information about asylum-seeker boats in trouble be passed on quickly to rescue agencies.

The federal police did not answer questions about whether it had a policy on safety of life at sea. A spokeswoman said any information was ''immediately referred'' to AMSA or Customs.


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