June 26, 2013
More than 100 asylum seekers drowned in rough seas between Indonesia and Christmas Island as authorities debated whose responsibility it was to rescue them, an inquest has heard.
Authorities in both countries were lambasted on day one of the two-day inquest into the deaths of 17 people aboard the Kaniva, codenamed Siev 358, which sank on June 21 last year.
West Australian coroner Alastair Hope heard the ramshackle fishing boat was loaded with 210 asylum seekers as it left Java with little water, few life jackets and immediate problems.
It has also emerged that a people smuggler known as Freddy Ambon admitted his involvement in the tragic voyage, referring to the asylum seekers as “goats”.
After becoming stuck in a mud bank for six hours, one crew member abandoned ship as he did not think the boat would make the trip, counsel assisting Marco Tedeschi said.
But the same option was not given to the panicking passengers, who were soon calling the Australian Rescue Co-ordination Centre with fears for their lives.
The boat’s first position was given as 36 nautical miles south of the Sunda Strait, which prompted Australian rescue authorities to tell those aboard they were in Indonesian waters and should turn back.
But Mr Tedeschi outlined a 2004 agreement that says the nation that receives the first distress call is responsible for a rescue – meaning Australia should have acted.
“The reality was [Australia] has responded to distress calls … and was under an obligation to commence rescue operations,” Mr Tedeschi said.
“They needed to do more, they needed to issue distress calls, they needed to think whether they were best placed.”
Indonesian authorities accepted responsibility for the rescue 11 hours later.
But no helicopter, marine police or merchant vessel responded, no naval vessel was ever called, and they turned down an offer from Australia to issue another mayday call.
“The reality is very little was done by Indonesia,” Mr Tedeschi said.
Almost 32 hours after the first distress call, the boat capsized.
It is believed almost all those who died were in the hull.
A further eight hours after it capsized, Customs flight saw the capsized boat, and Australia called all ships in the area to assist.
Merchant vessel MV Dragon responded within two minutes, and was rescuing survivors within 90 minutes.
Caught on camera by an Afghan asylum seeker, Ambon appears to admit his involvement but blames it on a Pakistani business partner.
“It was overloaded – so full,” Ambon says on footage aired by the ABC.
“I told him, ‘Don’t put more passengers on,’ but he insisted. So it wasn’t my fault. I did no wrong.”
Pakistani, Malaysian and Indonesian organisers of the boat have since been arrested in conjunction with the Australian Federal Police investigation, codenamed Operation Calder.
At least one survivor of the tragedy attended court on Tuesday and wishes to give evidence.