The Abbott Government's tough new border protection regime - Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) - has bumped right up against the most bizarre tragedy to date. An asylum seeker vessel sailed for four days and ended up sinking about 50 metres off the coast of Java, nearly as far away from Christmas Island as when it started. When the search was called off, dozens of bodies had been retrieved including many women & children, and an unknown number remain missing. It is believed that around 81 people were on the boat when it foundered and more than 50 lost their lives.
More than a week since the drownings, details remain sketchy and contradictory. This sinking is unlike any other we are aware of – it needs to be investigated in order to determine how and why such a strange and tragic incident could occur. Chillingly, the deaths on this boat were the first since the introduction of Operation Sovereign Borders. Questions must be asked about what if any role, direct or indirect, Australia's military style border protection policy played in this shocking incident.
What we know about the tragedy
A partial timeline of what Australia knew of the event was provided three days after the sinking by Vice-Chief of the Defence Force, Air Marshal Mark Binskin at the weekly OSB Media Briefing. (It is important to note that Australian authorities have not made public the coordinates received from the boat at any
time in their briefings.)
Details of the actual voyage included here have been gleaned from media reports.
The boat is reported to have departed Indonesia from Pelabuhan Ratu in Banten province on Monday 23 September and foundered four days later on Friday 27 September, sometime between 10am and midday Jakarta time very close to Agrabinta beach on the outskirts of Sukabumi, West Java. Survivors claim they were escorted to the departure point by men in uniforms. The vessel was in very poor repair, there were no life jackets and no food was provided. One survivor said he was given only one 600 ml bottle of water during the entire journey. Curiously the captain did not set a direct course for Christmas Island but meandered aimlessly - 'left turn, left turn,' a survivor described to a journalist. Christmas Island is about a 36 hour trip from Pelabuhan Ratu but after four days at sea the boat was not much closer to its destination than when it first set out.
In another odd twist, it appears that passengers on the boat contacted Australian authorities between 3 and 5 hours before the sinking and gave GPS coordinates which placed the boat about 60 nautical miles away from the sinking position. It is unlikely that the boat could have travelled this distance to the sinking location either adrift or with the engine functioning in that time and suggests that the passengers may have accidentally given the wrong longitude coordinates to AMSA. (An error of one degree in longitude in 'transcription' would account for the 60 mile discrepancy).
What were the Australian authorities doing during this event?
The day of the Agrabinta sinking was an extremely busy time for OSB. In the space of twenty four hours two boatloads of asylum seekers were rescued by Australian Border protection ships, the boats burnt at sea, the passengers returned to Indonesian waters and transferred to Indonesian authorities. In recent years it has been extremely rare for asylum seekers rescued close to Indonesia by an Australian Border Protection Command (BPC) vessel to be returned to Indonesia. The usual practice has been that asylum seekers rescued by us close to Indonesia have been taken to Christmas Island.
We cannot be certain of the exact time that the Agrabinta sinking occurred. As mentioned earlier, recent reporting out of Indonesia indicates that the boat sank about 50 metres from shore on Friday between 10am and midday Jakarta time (1-3pm AEST). If this is correct, then according to the OSB timeline Australia had coordination of the rescue effort for between five and seven hours prior to the sinking.
We know that at 10.41am AEST (7.41am Jakarta time and some two to four hours before the time of the sinking) the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) contacted Indonesia's Search and Rescue Agency, BASARNAS and attempted to pass coordination of the rescue to the Indonesians. BASARNAS refused.
Questions about the impact of Australian Government policy
Why did BASARNAS refuse to coordinate the rescue of this boat which was so very close to the Indonesian coast line? Was it in any way connected to the fact that it had already agreed that same day to accept two boatloads of rescued asylum seekers? Did the people aboard the doomed boat lose their lives because they fell into a fissure that may have opened up between Australian and Indonesian Search and Rescue organisations?
When did BASARNAS finally accept coordination of the rescue effort?
Two days after the sinking the Jakarta Post ran an article claiming BASARNAS had 'allegedly been receiving illegal funds from the Australian government with regard to the handling of refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East' and quoted a professor of international law from the University of Indonesia's School of Law, in Jakarta, who castigated BASARNAS:
'What a stupid thing for Basarnas to accept the refugees and asylum seekers from the Australian Navy under the pretext that they were found in Indonesian waters. It reflects stupidity, not hospitality,' he said.
There are many other questions concerning this tragedy.
• If the boat was at sea for 4 days, where exactly was it during this time and why? Did it meander in circles close to the coast as suggested by some survivors or did it get a fair distance to Christmas Island and then turn back? At what point did it run out of fuel? Was the engine still running when the boat made telephone contact with Australian authorities?
• What was the role of the Indonesian crew of the fishing boat? What is the truth of reports of the crew deserting when it became apparent it was sinking? What sort of captain sets sail for Christmas Island, yet four days later runs out of fuel close to the Indonesian coast, saves his own life while the majority of his passengers drown?
• Did Australian policy have any influence on how this tragedy played out?
Yesterday, at the weekly OSB briefing Scott Morrison said:
'We're not running a taxi service here or a reception centre. We are running a military-led border security operation, and as a result the rules and mode of operations have changed.'
If Australia's proudly belligerent border protection policy continues to encounter stubborn resistance from Indonesia with regard to accepting coordination of search and rescue events involving asylum seeker vessels close to its coastline can we expect to see more bodies wash up on the shores of Java?
Another avoidable tragedy on our doorstep
by Marg Hutton
11 June 2013
Last week's tragic sinking near Christmas Island marks a new low in Australia's dark history of asylum-seeker mass drownings.
The deaths of 60 or more people following the capsize of their 22 metre blue-hulled Indonesian fishing boat occurred after the boat had been detected and overflown just twenty eight nautical miles (NM) from Christmas Island by a Border Protection Command (BPC) flight. This is the first time a Suspected Irregular Entry Vessel (SIEV) has been observed by BPC so close to the normal Christmas Island interception zone (12 to 24 NM from Christmas Island), and yet gone on to sink nearby with all lives lost. Nothing quite like this has ever happened before; it is a terrible precedent and raises many questions.
When the boat was initially detected by a P3 Orion surveillance flight last Wednesday afternoon, it was not moving. During a press conference on Sunday the chief executive officer of Customs and Border Protection, Rear Admiral David Johnston, described what the P3 crew had reported: 'a vessel stationary in the water... people had come out to line around the outside of the vessel, they waved at the aircraft. There was no indication from their demeanour that the vessel was in distress.' It would appear that BPC had no real concerns about the safety of people on board the drifting boat as the Navy frigate HMAS Warramunga did not arrive in the area to attempt to intercept it till after midnight, seven hours after the P3 surveillance flight first spotted it.
We know that back in the Howard era, our Border Protection people on occasion left broken down SIEVs immobilised in the water for long periods. For example, Palapa, the boat that was rescued by MV Tampa in August 2001 was spotted dead in the water but was left overnight in a storm before Australian authorities responded to its plight and issued a broadcast to shipping to go to the rescue. It was a miracle that Palapa and the more than 400 passengers she carried survived this reckless neglect.
Given the number of asylum-seeker mass drowning incidents that have occurred over the last three years, it is troubling that Border Protection
Command left the SIEV drifting last week for seven hours before sending the Warramunga. Might the tragedy have been averted if a police or Customs boat had been sent from Christmas Island to check on the SIEV while it was still daylight and presumably easier to locate?
Jason Clare described the middle of the night search by Warramunga: 'It conducted a spiral search of the area out to a radius of 11 nautical miles but could not find the vessel. It then searched the approach corridor to Christmas Island. It continued this search throughout Thursday and Friday. An air force P-3 aircraft also searched the area throughout Thursday and Friday.'
What the Minister described here were routine border protection procedures on Thursday and Friday to locate and intercept incoming SIEVs. These were not dedicated search and rescue responses to a potential SOLAS situation. We know this because AMSA Rescue Coordination Centre was not engaged in the search until Friday
It appears that it was not until 10am Friday morning, a full forty hours after the Wednesday sighting of the boat by BPC that Australia's search and rescue organisation AMSA was informed of the missing boat. It then issued a Pan-pan notice to all shipping in the area, stating that the vessel was now considered overdue at Christmas Island.
About 3pm AEST on Friday afternoon, the submerged capsized hull of the missing vessel was discovered by a P3 Orion flight. It was this macabre discovery that finally triggered the top priority SOLAS response, involving the mobilisation of three aircraft, HMAS Warramunga and two merchant vessels. A Mayday Relay notice was issued by AMSA at about 3am on Saturday but by then it was too late; the people who had been on board the capsized vessel had already been drifting helplessly on the boat, or in the water, for up to 56 hours (we may never know when the boat capsized and when it sank). Despite an intensive search from Friday to Monday, no survivors were ever found.
We are assured repeatedly - and indeed the Law requires - that Australia does not treat asylum seekers in SIEVs any differently to people in other vessels in regard to a safety-of-life-at-sea response. Yet it is hard to imagine a circumstance where if we came across a boatload of our own citizens stopped dead in the water and waving, that we would leave them unassisted in any way for seven or eight hours, and only after forty hours of failing to find them would we then contact our Search and Rescue organisation.
Similarly our failure to retrieve any of the bodies of the dead from the sunken boat appears to be gross disrespect and discrimination towards these people and their families.
We may never know the names of the sixty desperate people who lost their lives seeking refuge in Australia but we owe their families an explanation for how they came to die so close to Christmas Island after having been detected by BPC and why we could not retrieve even one of their bodies. Are our resources stretched so tightly that we must be so inhumane?
Jason Clare indicated that there will be an internal review of this incident. Hopefully this will be done swiftly and released publicly prior to a coronial inquest (and there certainly must be such an inquest into this case). It is almost a year now since SIEV 358 (aka Kaniva) capsized north of Christmas Island after having made a series of distress calls to AMSA over two days; the internal review for that incident was completed last October and still hasn't seen the light of day. It is reportedly being witheld until after the coronial inquiry later this month.
The brave men and women who work at the coal face of our Border Protection system do an amazing job in very difficult circumstances. These men and women put their own lives on the line time and again to save the lives of others and if it wasn't for their efforts the number of asylum seekers who have drowned at sea would undoubtedly be many times higher than it currently stands. But the upper echelons of Border Protection management need to be more transparent and accountable in terms of their safety-of-life-at-sea attitudes and practices, if they are to give the public faith that they are willing and able to learn from their mistakes. After all the well-publicised tragedies over the past three years this latest shameful tragedy should never have been allowed to happen.
(For an archive of documents on this sinking see here)