Customs can't be sure of ultimate fate of asylum boat that vanished in June

Bodies and debris were never recovered so authorities will never know for certain where they came from, internal review says

Helen Davidson
Thursday 26 December 2013 13.55 AEST

The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service admits it can’t be sure of the ultimate fate of an asylum seeker vessel it was searching for in June because bodies and debris seen floating in the water off Christmas Island were never recovered, and authorities will never know for certain where they came from, an internal review into the sinking has revealed.

The review into the tragedy, which occurred in June of this year, sought to assess the actions and procedures taken by customs officers and related search and rescue agencies after a boat carrying an estimated 55 people sank, with no known survivors.

The report is one of three internal reviews into fatal asylum seeker boat sinkings which were released late last Friday afternoon.

An entire chapter of the report discusses what happened to the boat – referred to as COI 0502 – and whether it was the source of the debris and bodies.

“The review found no formal identification of the debris and bodies observed as part of SAR 2013/3821 was made by BPC or RCC,” reads one of its findings. “Therefore, the review is unable to make any definitive statement as to the origin of the debris or bodies, including the ultimate fate of COI 0502.”

Because there were no survivors, no bodies recovered, nor any distinguishable wreckage retrieved, conclusive statements about the cause of the sinking were “not possible”.

“While the review notes the possible link between the debris and COI 0502, at the time of writing this report there has been no information to indicate that COI 0502 or some other specific vessel was the source of the debris and bodies.”

A spokesman for the service told Guardian Australia the internal review was “a comprehensive report that assessed and cross-referenced all operational logs, chronologies and key information to determine what occurred during the incident. The review is a considered representation of all operational information captured during the incident.”

The asylum seeker vessel was spotted by an RAAF patrol aircraft on the afternoon of 5 June, and was not reported to be in distress, despite it being stationary and with people waving from the deck. Two customs vessels, Glenelg and Warramunga, were tasked to other operations – transferring asylum seekers to Christmas Island and destroying a previously intercepted boat, SIEV 733, respectively.

Approximately an hour later the Warramunga was directed to intercept COI 0502. The Warramunga “expedited” the destruction of the SIEV 733 but did not leave for about another five hours. By the time it reached the last known position of COI 0502 there was no sight of it or its passengers.

When news of the sinking broke, the time taken between sighting the vessel and attempting to intercept it was criticised by refugee advocates. But the review found that all customs and SAR agencies acted appropriately, including when the search for the missing vessel was escalated.

The decision not to retrieve bodies from the water was also heavily criticised at the time, as disrespectful to the deceased and their loved ones left behind.

The review found that in one instance, a body found floating near debris could not be recovered due to a lack of light and aerial support. In other mentions of bodies discovered, no reason is given, although some were spotted by the Dash 8 customs aircraft only.

Among its findings relating to the non-recovery of the bodies, the review noted a rationale of “posturing of resources for ongoing activities to prevent further loss of life”.

“It also included the practical challenges involved with recovery activities based upon the likelihood of the deceased still being afloat, the condition of the deceased, and the potential impact on mission capability.”

The report said a number of bodies were spotted when searching for survivors was still a priority, and on further consideration the likelihood the bodies were in “an advanced state of decomposition” was also taken into account.

By the time survivor searches were over, no bodies could be found.

The office of the current minister for immigration and border protection, Scott Morrison, did not respond to requests for comment.


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