Customs and Border Protection Service raises doubt on asylum-seeker boat rescue response

December 22, 2013
Bianca Hall

Australian authorities responsible for the surveillance and rescue of asylum-seeker vessels are susceptible to poor co-ordination and miscommunication, as it emerged it took two days to launch a full-scale effort to save a sinking boat, where all on board drowned.

An internal review by the Customs and Border Protection Service, released late on Friday, found authorities had ''demonstrated an appropriate and timely approach'' to locating the stricken boat, which sank on its way to Christmas Island in June.

With no distress call issued from the boat and two naval vessels in the region engaged with other asylum seeker boats, Border Protection Command (BPC) instead monitored the situation for two days before upgrading its response. It is believed 60 people drowned, including a number of women and children. Australian authorities did not recover the bodies.It comes after Australia's search and rescue agency was criticised in a classified government report in June for not being proactive enough in helping an asylum seeker boat that had made at least 16 calls for help over two days before capsizing, killing 104 men.

The latest report was one of three internal reviews - released in the last few working days before Christmas - into Australia's responses to three boat sinkings that together killed at least 73 people in June and July. Advertisement

It said Australian authorities responsible for searching for the boat were located in different buildings, and used different communication systems, creating ''communication challenges'' and increasing the risk of miscommunication.

''On a number of occasions information was either misinterpreted or reinterpreted incorrectly,'' the report found. ''While these issues were generally corrected and there was no material impact on the outcomes, the review noted this as an area for further consideration.''

And it recommended Customs and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) work better together, and ''consider a more integrated approach'' to managing emergencies. To help this happen, BPC should consider introducing a ''modern automated case management system'' to monitor separate incidents simultaneously with other agencies. A BPC spokeswoman said this recommendation would be implemented, but could not say how or when this would be done.

The report said an RAAF plane first reported seeing the asylum seeker boat at 5.43pm on June 5, 28 nautical miles north-west of Christmas Island.

As they flew above, authorities took photographs of asylum seekers waving their arms above their heads on the desperately overcrowded wooden fishing boat. It was the last time they were seen alive.

Three days later, HMAS Warramunga found nine bodies floating about 60 nautical miles north-west of Christmas Island. The fate of the others on board is not known.

Before the rescue effort was officially launched, HMAS Warramunga, an RAAF plane and merchant vessels had unsuccessfully tried to find the boat. By 8.30am on June 7, a co-ordinated search and rescue was launched and by that afternoon bodies and debris had been discovered in two areas 10 nautical miles apart. The search for survivors was called off on June 9.

Australia's border protection responsibility covers 11 million square nautical miles, which is equivalent to about 11 per cent of the earth's oceans.

The review found BPC and AMSA struggled with ''communication challenges'', with one supervisor at the Australian Maritime Security Operations Centre having to contend with seven operations systems.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the reports ''found that agencies worked well to co-operatively exchange important information in relation to these incidents''.

''The reviews made a number of similar recommendations around administrative and technical processes, which are all being implemented,'' he said.


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