August 30, 2012
A boat carrying 150 suspected asylum seekers is reportedly sinking.
PEOPLE smugglers are selling desperate refugees a “ticket to the bottom of the sea” as they rush to push asylum seekers onto boats before offshore processing begins, an angry government minister said today.
Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare lashed out at the people smugglers this morning, as news emerged that many asylum seekers are feared to have died in a new boat tragedy off Indonesia.
Mr Clare said the smugglers are running a “closing down sale” by tempting refugee hopefuls with the offer of a ride to Australia offshore processing rules kick in – and warned their opportunistic grab for asylum seekers’ money could continue.
“They’re telling people they’re selling them a ticket to Australia,” he said. “What they’re really doing is selling them a ticket to Nauru or a ticket to the bottom of the sea”.
He spoke as efforts continued to find survivors after a wooden vessel went down off Indonesia. While six people have been found alive, there are fears it could have been carrying many more – possibly up to 150, according to a mystery distress signal received yesterday. That call for help sparked a search but no vessel was found.
Mr Clare said the passing of legislation for offshore processing had fuelled the people smugglers to act quickly.
“I think the legislation (to set up offshore processing) only encourages people smugglers to try and get people onto boats as quickly as they can because they know setting up offshore processing in Nauru, in Manus Island…will shut down their business model,” he said.
“More than 300 people have died in the last three months and it appears more people have died in the last 24 hours.”
Mr Clare said he expected people smugglers to keep trying to sell asylum seekers tickets to Australia, saying some asylum seekers had already paid half their ticket.
“My message to them, is don’t get on the boat,” he said.
He said the Australian government had “grave fears for many, many more” asylum seekers after six were plucked from the sea.
“Six people have survived, potentially dozens and dozens of people haven’t,” he said.
Mr Clare said the goal was to find survivors, and he believed there was still a “window of opportunity” in the rescue attempt.
He said the initial call of distress from the boat said the boat was carrying women and children.
The six survivors are all believed to be male.
Mr Clare said after the Indonesian search authority called the search and rescue effort off last night, Australian authorities received drift modelling and asked a border protection command Dash 8 to search the area.
The Dash 8 searched one area, but was unable to search further because of fuel and weather restrictions.
Australian authorities then tasked the merchant vessel APL Bahrain to assist, which then saw signs of people in the water early this morning.
Indonesia is coordinating the search.
When asked if Australia was disappointed with Indonesia’s efforts, Mr Clare said: “Let’s just remember how difficult this task is. This is a big stretch of water. Search and rescue is very hard.
“It is very hard to find people who are in distress in a little wooden boat…anywhere between Christmas Island and the coast of Indonesia.”
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority received a distress call from the boat off the coast of Indonesia yesterday morning and broadcast a shipping alert for the wooden vessel.
The Authority says that around 3.30am AEST today, the Master of the APL Bahrain reported they had sighted people in the water in the search area. The boat had suffered engine failure and was taking on water.
The APL Bahrain is attempting to recover survivors.
A second merchant vessel, the bulk carrier Gwendolin, which had also been searching overnight, was moving to the area where survivors have been sighted to assist in the search and recovery operation.
Two Indonesian search vessels, Rescue Boat 201 and Maritime Police Vessel KP Enggano, also are heading to the area. They are expected to arrive by 3pm today.
The Australian navy vessel, HMAS Maitland is expected to arrive at 4pm today. A Defence aircraft departed Learmonth and a Customs aircraft departed Christmas Island today.
Two Australian search planes were also due to arrive on the scene later this morning, AMSA spokeswoman Jo Meahan said.
Mr Clare said information about what had happened would be sought from the survivors.
“It’s my expectation the survivors will be taken to Indonesia,” he said.
Their condition was not yet known, but they had been in the water for many hours.
Ms Gillard and parliamentary secretary for Pacific Islands Affairs Richard Marles signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the establishment of a regional processing centre in Nauru.
The MOU was signed in Rarotonga earlier by Mr Marles, the Nauru Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Kieren Keke.
“The MOU is the next step in implementing the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers and an important development in setting up the regional processing centre for irregular maritime arrivals in Nauru,” Ms Gillard said.
“The signing today formalises this arrangement between Australia and Nauru.”
It was not known last night if anyone had died.
The latest drama came as two more asylum vessels were intercepted by Australian authorities, carrying a total of 83 people.
A boat with 58 passengers was found northeast of Christmas Island on Tuesday night, while a second vessel holding 25 people was met north-west of Christmas Island yesterday morning.
At the Pacific Islands Forum, Ms Gillard said she was “on the same page” as Nauru and PNG on the length of time asylum seekers would be held in processing centres.
Nauru’s Foreign Minister Kieren Keke and PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill have both said they want asylum seekers to be processed and resettled in other countries – including Australia – quickly if they are found to be refugees.
Ms Gillard insisted this request was not at odds with her vow that asylum seekers who arrive by boat will not get any advantage over those who use legitimate channels – a move that could see those classed as refugees being detained offshore for a number of years.
“If they are a genuine refugee then they will have to wait the same amount of time for a resettlement opportunity as they would have waited if they hadn’t got on the boat,” she has said previously.
Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer today said the government had to take responsibility for the tragedies after dismantling the Pacific solution and triggering the wave of arrivals.
“It has lead to the tragedies we see today,” she said.
Ms O’Dwyer said tougher measures were needed, including the full suite of Howard government-era measures.
“Not just offshore processing but temporary protection visas and, where it is a safe to do so, turn boats around,” she added.
Labor MP Andrew Leigh said the government’s decision to reopen Nauru and Manus Island was designed to try and prevent this sort of tragedy.
He explained the government was helping out despite the boat’s location so close to Indonesia because it was about “being a good neighbour”.
“These drownings are just one of the most horrendous things you can see in politics,” he said.
He said it appeared asylum seekers were still happy to take the risk, despite the threat of offshore detention.
“Some people have paid a people smuggler before August 13,” they feel they paid their money they may as well as go ahead with the other money
“The other thing is people smugglers continuing to deceive people.”
Meanwhile, it was revealed on Lateline last night that Attorney General Nicola Roxon ordered the prosecutions against 132 Indonesian boat crew, charged with aggravated people smuggling, be discontinued.
Crew members on asylum seeker boats will now not be charged with the offence – which carries a mandatory five years jail – unless there is evidence they helped plan the journey or deaths occurred at sea. The decision will not affect 270 boat crew currently in jail after being convicted of the offence.