Fishermen 'told not to help asylum-seekers'

June 15, 2013 12:00AM

BORDER protection authorities have strongly rejected claims Customs staff told a fishing boat off Darwin to not provide help to an asylum-seeker vessel.

Deckhand Mark O'Dwyer told the Northern Territory News his boat came across an asylum vessel in distress about 130-140 nautical miles off the coast on Monday.

He said as the fishing crew was trying to get diesel, food and water to the boat, the skipper of the boat contacted Customs, who told them not to help and leave the area. A Customs and Border Protection spokesman confirmed the contact but said at no time were the people on the fishing boat told not to provide help.

"The master of any vessel on the high seas has an obligation under international law to render assistance to any vessel they believe to be in distress," the spokesman said.

"At no time did the fishing vessel indicate it had any concerns about the seaworthiness of the vessel in question."

The spokesman said the asylum boat had been seen by a surveillance plane earlier that day and the vessel was monitored until it was intercepted by HMAS Maitland the next day.

"At no time during the surveillance of the vessel as it made its way towards the Australian mainland was there any indication of distress," the spokesman said.

"The safety of life at sea is Border Protection Command's highest priority."

Mr O'Dwyer said he was worried the boat might capsize in the large swell.

He said it was overloaded and he could see there were young children on board.

"I thought they were taking on water because the bow was sitting low on the waves," he said.

"But it was because it had too many people. It was overloaded. It was full to the brim. I have no idea how many people there were but there were too many."

Mr O'Dwyer said the asylum-seekers threw an almost empty diesel drum into the water.

He said the fishermen filled it up with diesel and threw it back into the ocean in the hope that the asylum-seekers could reach it.

The asylum boat was unable to collect it from the water.

"In that swell, you need to have diesel so you can power on into the swell or with the swell to stop the roll of the boat, if the boat hits waves sideways it will capsize," he said.

The office of Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said there were 79 passengers and two crew on board the asylum boat.


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