Search called off for asylum seekers missing at sea

July 14, 2013

Authorities have suspended the search for survivors from an asylum seeker boat that sank near Christmas Island on Friday night.

The Australian Maritime Search and Rescue Authority (AMSA) says the decision was based on the high probability that it was unlikely there would be any more survivors found.

A baby boy died and eight people remain missing, while authorities rescued 88 people who have since been taken to Christmas Island.

Customs, the Navy, Air Force, chartered civil aircraft and a merchant ship all helped in the search.

It has been revealed that the Australian Federal Police received the first distress call from a Melbourne man on Friday morning who had spoken to a person on the boat who said it was in trouble.

A Customs vessel was directed to assist more than five hours later.

Former Australian ambassador Tony Kevin says lives are being put at risk because of an attitude among authorities that asylum seeker distress calls should not be trusted.

“There’s an entrenched doctrine in the Australian border protection and maritime safety system that distress calls from asylum seekers are not to be believed, that they’re having a lend of us,” he said.

“And as long as these attitudes persist in the system, they will go on putting lives at risk, lives that needn’t be put at risk because we have the resources to intercept and save and rescue them.”

A spokesperson for AMSA rejected the comments, saying all calls for assistance are taken seriously.

“We have a team of dedicated search and rescue professionals working around the clock to receive calls, to assess the assistance required and then to organise the appropriate assistance as quickly as can practically be done,” the spokesperson said.

“AMSA responds to every call to assistance from vessels seeking assistance adhering to convention requirements to respond without regard to the nationality or status of the people or the circumstances in which they are found.

“AMSA reiterates that entering the Indian Ocean in a grossly overloaded, unreliable wooden boat designed for sheltered waters, with no maritime communications, inadequate crew, no life rafts and no distress beacons presents exceptionally grave risks to the passengers, particularly children, and the crew.

“Each incident is managed in accordance with internationally accepted principals and taking [into] account the individual circumstances such as location of the vessel seeking assistance, sea and weather conditions, availability of nearby aircraft and vessels to assist.”

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare says there will be a standard internal review of the rescue operation.

A total of 97 people from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka were on board the ill-fated boat, which officials believe came from Indonesia.

Mr Clare says the Customs ship Triton arrived at the boat around 10pm (AEST) on Friday night.

HMAS Albany and HMAS Bathurst were called for extra assistance. Bathurst arrived at 1:20am and Albany at 4am.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said he was saddened to hear of the child’s death and that it underlined the importance for Australia to continue to work with Indonesia to address people smuggling.

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