Border patrols at breaking point over asylum boats

Cameron Stewart and Paige Taylor
July 18, 2013 12:00AM

NAVY insiders say there is "a growing and burning anger" among sailors on the frontline as they struggle to respond to the spiralling number of deaths and sinkings flowing from the government's failed asylum-seeker policies.

The warning comes as the nation's border protection system teetered on the edge of dysfunction last night, with detention facilities on Christmas Island overflowing from the recent influx of asylum-seekers and yet another emergency on the high seas as the navy rushed to rescue a sinking asylum-seeker boat with 80 people on board.

The navy's workload means the 21-person crew of patrol boat HMAS Bathurst, which was involved in last night's emergency, has rescued six boats in the past 10 days carrying a total of 669 people.

The arrival of between 700 and 800 asylum-seekers a week for more than a month has pushed the number of asylum-seekers on Christmas Island to a record of about 4000, and the relentless pace of arrivals is creating serious problems for the management of the compounds, which are now severely overcrowded beyond contingent capacity.

As survivors of Tuesday night's boat capsize that killed four people were brought ashore yesterday, the head of detention on Christmas Island, Serco regional director John Harrison, was on the jetty holding babies and mucking in despite not having slept for 24 hours.

"He has to, we're just that stretched," said one detention centre worker.

"John knows he can't sit in his office like a manager."

A senior source inside the navy's Armidale-class patrol boat fleet told The Australian yesterday Defence would face a steep spike in the number of post-traumatic stress disorders as young sailors bore witness to desperate people drowning in front of them.

"Just try to picture pulling body parts out of the ocean, because that's what happens to bodies in the water for a few days, they pull apart at the seams," said the patrol boat insider, who asked not to be named for fear of losing their job. "Unless something changes with our border protection policy, it's going to be a PTSD free-for-all."

The Australian spoke yesterday to navy insiders and navy psychologists who painted a grim picture of flagging morale and anger among crew members involved in Operation Resolute, the joint Customs/navy operation tasked with intercepting asylum-seeker boats.

"There is a growing and burning anger among many of them about the position they have been placed in," said one insider, who has spoken to crew members involved in recent interceptions of asylum-seeker boats.

"They have seen bodies out there, they have seen women and children in terrible situations, they can't come away from this without some emotional distress.

"The general public have no idea what our (navy) personnel are being exposed to and there is a lot of frustration with the politics which has led to this situation."

The navy contributes seven patrol boats to Operation Resolute, but has recently been forced to add a minehunter and an ANZAC frigate to meet the growing number of arrivals.

Border protection vessels were rushing last night to rescue a boat that was sinking off Christmas Island with about 80 people on board.

It follows the deaths of four people and the rescue of 144 in heavy seas on Tuesday when their boat capsized, and the deaths of nine people, including a one-year-old boy, when their boat sank at the weekend. More than 1000 asylum-seekers have perished at sea since Labor relaxed its policies in 2008 - a move it now concedes was a mistake.

Since Labor came to power in late 2007, more than 46,391 asylum-seekers have arrived in Australia by boat with almost a third - 15,182 - arriving this year.

On Christmas Island, immigration workers are said to be flagging under the weight of the asylum-seeker influx.

The remarkable rescue of children and babies in Tuesday night's fatal capsize would normally be a cause for celebration, but rescuers and immigration workers are being worn down by the relentless cycle of tragedy that sees 100 new asylum-seekers arriving on the island each day.

Christmas Island Union of Workers secretary Gordon Thomson, who represents guards at the island's detention compounds, said the suffering of asylum-seekers took a toll on everyone.

"They're the ones dealing with the people arriving and I believe there's an accumulation of stress," he said. "It's very emotionally demanding, I am seeing a lot of young men and women getting upset and stressed from it all. Some of them are drinking heavily to try to cope with what they see.

"The grief is raw and confronting. The wailing of a woman who lost her baby, the howls of grief and pain from the recently bereaved. It's incredibly sad."

Christmas Island administrator Jon Stanhope said the Australian residents of Christmas Island had shown enormous good grace over what had been imposed upon them. They were outnumbered two to one by asylum-seekers and they were not living in "moral panic", which he said was, in many ways, an example to the nation.

Mr Stanhope called for the names of the deceased to be made public, saying their identities should be recognised. He said the anonymity of asylum-seekers made them seem an "amorphous block" when they were real people with "the hopes and the dreams that we all have".

He said he had been particularly touched by the death of a baby boy at sea last week.

"I drive past the mortuary every day where that little boy lies, and I think, 'Well, he has a name and we don't know it'," he said. "I do think it would assist all of us if he weren't anonymous."

The contingency capacity of Christmas Island's various detention compounds is 2724 but there were 3845 detainees being held in them when the last headcount was conducted on Tuesday afternoon. Since then, 74 men, women and children rescued from their holed vessel by the Bathurst have arrived and the 144 survivors of the capsize that claimed at least four lives were delivered to the island in two groups - the first were mostly men in the early hours of Wednesday morning. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship sent two planeloads of asylum-seekers to the mainland yesterday to try to ease pressure, and a busy schedule of charter flights is planned in coming days.

Space is at a premium in detention and the department has erected 10 tents that can sleep 40 people each.

Last night a department spokeswoman said the agency had developed a range of specialised programs and guidance materials to educate staff about psychological risk factors and allow them to manage their psychological well being. As well, workers had direct access to professional support services including on site counselling at Christmas Island.

The contractor that runs Australia's detention network, Serco, also has psychologists for its staff.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare yesterday admitted that the welfare of Border Protection crews was a concern for the government.

"For a moment we've got to stop and think about the work that those men and women are doing. They have plucked over 100 people out of the water overnight, but they have also had to recover the bodies of people that have died," he said. "You have to think about the psychological impact that it has on our men and women that do this work . . . when bodies are in the ocean for more than 24 hours, that job gets much, much more difficult. And so an important part of the work that we have to do after the rescue has been made, and after the bodies have been recovered, is make sure we've got the support services for our men and women that have done this work.

"We always make sure we have those services."

A navy spokesman last night said the service was "aware of the ongoing risk to our people" and had a program of mental health support including psychological screening of all crew after a traumatic incident. "Treatment may include a range of specialist and allied health interventions, leave and tailored return-to-work programs."

The head of Border Protection Command, Admiral David Johnston, said sailors were facing enormous challenges.

"Dealing with deaths is particularly difficult," he said. "It is . . . a dreadful feeling in the stomach when we hear that a vessel has capsized or that it's in some difficulty and then we are responding to try to ensure we are bringing as many people as we can to safety."


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