Rescue delays key to boat fatalities

July 28, 2013
Natalie O'brien

Australia's search and rescue agency refused to mount a search for an asylum seeker boat that sank seven weeks ago killing 55 people, including two babies, until debris was sighted, despite mounting concerns about its safety, official documents have revealed.

Documents obtained by Fairfax Media also show there were concerns for the boat when it was first spotted by a customs surveillance plane ''dead in the water'' on June 5, directly contradicting federal government claims there was no indication of distress and people were on deck waving.

Fresh revelations of apparent delays by Australia's Rescue Co-ordination Centre follow unsettling evidence of rescue delays from a Perth inquest into the sinking and deaths of 104 men last year, and controversy about the federal government's decision to direct all asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea.

In response, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young has called for ''a rigorous, independent review'' of Australia's search and rescue protocols. Advertisement

''The questions raised by the apparent resistance of RCC Australia to take charge of this rescue operation are very serious,'' she said.

The operational running sheets from the centre, obtained under freedom of information laws, have revealed that from the time the plane spotted the boat just 28 nautical miles north of Christmas Island, customs reported concerns for its safety because it wasn't moving. Concerns escalated when HMAS Warramunga was sent to check on it and it couldn't be found. Despite rising apprehension by the admiral in charge of Defence and Border Protection Command and explicit requests for the RCC to start a search, the RCC said it was ''unable to accept co-ordination at this time'' but would consider further indications of distress.

''If debris is sighted, the surveillance would then move to a SAR [search and rescue] phase,'' the documents said. Two days later the boat was found submerged and 13 bodies and debris were located floating in the water. They were never recovered.

Former Australian ambassador Tony Kevin, the author of a number of books about Australia's response to asylum seeker boats in distress, said it was shocking the RCC would wait until debris was seen before taking action.

''Why was it not taken seriously? The fact that the engines were not running; that should have started all kinds of alarm bells ringing,'' he said.

The revelations follow evidence given in the West Australian Coroner's Court last week that the same agency which is run by Australia's Maritime Safety Authority was not proactive enough in helping an asylum seeker boat known as the SIEV 358 which sank killing 104 men, just over a year before this latest boat.

That inquest has been told the passengers on the SIEV 358 made 16 desperate phone calls pleading for help, saying the boat was broken and taking on water and that they had no lifejackets, but a search and rescue mission was not mounted until the boat had capsized.

AMSA manager Alan Lloyd revealed calls for help from asylum seeker boats were treated differently because of previous false alarms and what he called ''refugee patter''.

The WA Coroner Alastair Hope has already told the inquest it is clear that if action had been taken earlier, those lives would have been saved.

In the June incident, a spokeswoman for AMSA said at no stage had the vessel made contact with AMSA, nor was AMSA in possession of any specific information about its location or contact details.

Paris Aristotle, who was a member of the prime minister's expert panel on asylum seekers, wrote an opinion piece for Fairfax Media about the tragedy and revealed at the time there was an aerial photograph of the boat with the 55 men, women and two babies on board.

''The questions raised by the apparent resistance of RCC Australia to take charge of this rescue operation are very serious,'' Senator Hanson-Young said.

''Deliberately waiting for the worst to happen before taking action beggars belief.''


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