Moves to rethink life-jacket policy for boatpeople

Lauren Wilson
December 23, 2013 12:00AM

AN internal probe into the capsizing of an asylum-seeker vessel in July, in which four people died, has called on Customs and Defence to consider a joint review of the policies for providing life jackets to asylum-seekers on sinking vessels.

On July 15, in a month when asylum-seeker arrivals rose to record levels and Australian authorities were stretched in responding to a number of maritime incidents, an Indonesian fishing vessel was spotted 136 nautical miles northeast of Christmas Island with about 50 people crowded on its deck, some wearing life jackets.

The asylum boat was tracked by the Customs and Border Protection vessel HMAS Albany, as the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's Rescue Co-ordination Centre received a distress call from an asylum-seeker claiming the boat had stopped and was taking on water.

By about 1pm on July 16, the boarding party of the Albany was positioned alongside the asylum-seeker vessel, but was unable to board the ship safely because of rough seas.

It noted people were bailing water from the boat and one of the engines had failed, but that it appeared seaworthy.

The internal Customs report said the commanding officer of the Albany considered providing life jackets to the asylum-seekers, but made a professional judgment not to do so because it was unable to board the boat and safely transfer the life jackets to the passengers, or provide instructions on how to use them.

The vessel also appeared seaworthy, and a number of people were spotted wearing life jackets -- indicating there could have been a sufficient number on board.

"From the information available, the review found that it may have been physically possible to attempt to transfer life jackets to people on board the vessel prior to its capsize, without boarding the vessel," the report said.

"It is acknowledged that the success, or otherwise, of such an attempt would have been very much subject to the prevailing weather conditions, and the conditions on board the vessel, and that these factors were considered by the commanding officer of the HMAS Albany in determining the most appropriate course of action in responding to the situation faced."

Authorities rescued 146 people from the water, including an infant. But the four bodies recovered were not wearing life jackets.

The internal review noted it was not the appropriate authority to draw any conclusions about whether the earlier provision of life jackets would have prevented loss of life.

Current protocols are based on Australian officers being able to get on to the asylum-seeker boats and hand out life jackets.


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