September 01, 2013
Official photos of two doomed asylum seeker boats that sank, killing all on board including two babies, show the passengers of both boats trying to attract the attention of a plane flying overhead by waving their arms or a white flag.
The never-before-seen photos, obtained by Fairfax Media, were taken on June 5 from a customs surveillance plane that was flying over waters north of Christmas Island and Cocos Islands.
Australian authorities believed that both boats, which were several hundred kilometres apart, capsized and all passengers on board perished. Customs have blanked out the faces of those on board for privacy reasons.
The pictures released by Australian Customs under freedom-of-information laws show that the bigger of the two boats was very overcrowded and drifting ”dead in the water” at the mercy of the sea and winds, with many of the passengers appearing to be signalling to the aircraft, contradicting federal government claims that that boat had not shown any signs of distress and the people on board had come out of the vessel to give a wave to the aircraft.
Peter Harvey, a former harbour master in Britain with extensive search and rescue experience examined the photos. He said: ”Slowly raising and lowering outstretched arms is an officially recognised signal of distress but even mass waving from a dead ship, out of sight of land must, surely, be at least a call for assistance.”
Mr Harvey, who lives in Australia, said that ”to suggest they were waving in a friendly fashion, other than if they were close inshore or near to a safe haven, stretches the imagination”. If he had seen the boat, he would have closed in and asked whether they needed aid.
”Once having seen it, doing nothing or not initiating a response with all possible speed would have been unacceptable under any convention, either SOLAS [safety of life at sea] or a basic seamanlike concern for the welfare of others at sea,” he said.
It has since been revealed that within eight hours of the photo being taken of the bigger boat, which was just 27 nautical miles from Christmas Island, it had disappeared.
Documents obtained by Fairfax Media under freedom of information revealed there were concerns for the safety of the boat from the moment customs had spotted it because it had been ”dead in the water”.
A customs vessel, the HMAS Warramunga, had been sent to check on it, but by the time it reached the last known location early on June 6 it could not find the boat.
Four days later Customs and Border Protection ships, which had mounted a search, discovered debris and 13 bodies floating in the water. They never recovered the bodies, instead continuing on to search for survivors.
The second boat which Customs believes was a Sri Lankan-type fishing boat named the Jayawe never turned up at Cocos Island and four days after the photos were taken, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority put out a PANPAN (possible assistance needed) alert to all ships in the area. It issued another alert on June 12 but the boat had vanished without a trace.