Baby boy found dead, search for survivors after asylum seeker boat capsizes

July 13, 2013 - 11:55AM
Natalie O'Brien

Customs and Border Protection waited hours before directing its ship to go to the rescue of a foundering asylum seeker boat which eventually capsized on Friday night, killing a baby boy and leaving eight other people missing, feared drowned.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare revealed at a press conference in Sydney on Saturday that the first distress calls were received by the Australian Federal Police at 11.15am on Friday from a Melbourne man warning the boat with 97 people on board, believed to be from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, was in trouble north of Christmas Island.

But Customs did not direct its ship, the Triton, to go to the rescue until 4.50pm. When it reached the boat five hours later, it was found stationary and taking on water.

Three Australian Customs officer boarded the boat, but at 10.27pm, while the Triton was still alongside together with the merchant ship the Garden City, it was hit by a large wave, took on more water and began to sink. ]

Rescuers worked to pull 88 people from the water and the Customs officers were also saved. But Mr Clare confirmed that the body of boy who was less than a year old had been recovered and eight people remained missing.

The Triton took the survivors to Christmas Island on Saturday while two Customs boats, a merchant ship and three aircraft continued searching for the missing.

Mr Clare said there would be a internal review of procedures including an examination of the requests for help. But he would not comment on the delay saying as a minister he should not be ''second guessing'' border protection actions while there are still people missing in the water.

Former Australian ambassador and author Tony Kevin questioned ''why boats have to overturn and babies have to drown before Border Protection takes its rescue responsibilities seriously''.

''This is the latest in a long series of highly questionable deaths at sea after Australian authorities have, in many cases, detected and even intercepted asylum seeker boats. It reflects growing indifference to asylum seekers losing their lives at sea and a growing brutalisation of our practices,'' Mr Kevin said.

Speaking at a press conference in Brisbane on Saturday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the tragedy ''underlines the absolute importance for Australia to continue to adjust its policies to meet changing circumstances in the region and in the world when it comes to border security.''

Mr Clare said that the AMSA had requested assistance from Customs at 12.30pm on Friday and just after 3pm the authority put out a broadcast to any ships in the area to go to the assistance of the asylum seeker boat.

Mr Clare said Customs did not direct its ships to go north until 4.30pm on Friday. Just minutes later, at 4.40pm, the Federal Police received calls from people on the boat saying it was disabled and taking on water, and at 4.50pm Customs directed the Triton to go to the rescue.

- with Cameron Atfield


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