November 21, 2013
An Australian Customs patrol boat had to rescue about 40 asylum seekers at the weekend after accidentally ripping the bow of their boat away and causing it to start sinking. Multiple sources said the patrol boat was trying to tow the fishing vessel when it damaged its bow, causing it to take on water.
The fishing boat’s engines had stopped about 20 kilometres off Christmas Island. It is understood Customs was at the time of the incident trying to tow the boat back towards Christmas Island, not towards Indonesia.
The incident happened on Friday night and the asylum seekers were offloaded at Christmas Island on Sunday morning.
Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell refused to confirm or deny the incident when asked about it by Labor Senator Kim Carr in a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday.
General Campbell said it was normal practice to deliberately sink unseaworthy asylum-seeker boats after the passengers had been transferred to Australian patrol boats. He said the government reported ”serious incidents” when they occurred, such as if anybody drowned.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has not responded to requests for information on the incident.
The 40 passengers are understood to be from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The threat of turning boats back to Indonesia when it is safe to do so has been a controversial plank of the Coalition’s border protection policy.
After repeated refusals by the Abbott government to reveal the status of the widely ridiculed Indonesian boat buy-back policy, announced in the heat of the election campaign, General Campbell finally revealed in a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday that no boats had been bought.
Asked by Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young about the policy, General Campbell told the hearing all policies remained on the table but the buy-back plan had met resistance from the Indonesian government.
”All those measures remain available at this stage,” he said. ”But [the policy] isn’t one that the Indonesian government wishes to see applied right now as part of our co-operative activities, which we respect.”
Senator Hanson-Young then asked: ”So no boats have been purchased?”
General Campbell replied: ”No, Senator.”