Asylum seeker deaths: Authorities took two days before launching search for doomed boat

December 22, 2013 | the Sydney Morning Herald

It took two days after an asylum seeker boat was seen near Christmas Island in June for Australia’s maritime authority to mount a co-ordinated search and rescue effort for the boat.

But by the time authorities found the boat it was debris, having sunk. It is believed the 60 people on board, including women and children, died. Australian authorities did not recover the bodies.

Data interactive - Asylum seeker drownings since 1990Drownings reach a grim milestone: Explore data on asylum seeker deaths at sea.

An internal review by the Customs and Border Protection Service review found authorities had ”demonstrated an appropriate and timely approach” to locating the stricken boat.

With no distress call issued from the boat and two naval vessels in the region engaged with other asylum seeker boats, Border Protection Command instead monitored the situation for two days before upgrading its response.

The report comes 18 months after Australia’s search and rescue agency was criticised in a classified government report for not being proactive enough in helping an asylum seeker boat that had made more than 16 calls for help over two days before eventually capsizing, killing 104 men.

The latest report, released late on Friday, was one of three internal reviews into Australia’s responses to three sinkings that killed at least 73 people in June and July.

It said Australian authorities responsible for searching for the boat were in different buildings, and used different communication systems, creating ”communication challenges” and increasing the risk of miscommunication. It recommended Customs and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) work better together, and ”consider a more integrated approach”. To help this happen, BPC should consider introducing a ”modern automated case management system” to monitor separate incidents simultaneously with other agencies. A BPC spokeswoman said this recommendation would be implemented, but could not say how or when this would be done.

The report said an RAAF plane first reported seeing the asylum seeker boat at 5.43pm on June 5, just 28 nautical miles north-west of Christmas Island.

As they flew above, crew members took photographs of asylum seekers waving their arms above their heads on the desperately overcrowded wooden fishing boat. Only three were clearly wearing life jackets. It was the last time they were seen alive. Three days later, HMAS Warramunga found nine bodies floating about 60 nautical miles north-west of Christmas Island.

The fate of the others on board is not known, although the report cautioned that it could not confirm the bodies were from the boat photographed earlier because the bodies were not recovered and identified.

Before the rescue effort was launched officially, Warramunga, an RAAF plane and merchant vessels had tried to find the boat.

By 8.30am on Friday, June 7, a co-ordinated search and rescue was launched and by that afternoon bodies and debris had been discovered in two areas 10 nautical miles apart. The search for survivors was called off on Sunday night.

Australia’s border protection responsibility covers 11 million square nautical miles, which is equivalent to about 11 per cent of the Earth’s oceans.

The review found BPC and AMSA struggled with ”communication challenges”, with one supervisor at the Australian Maritime Security Operations Centre having to contend with seven different operations systems to find and distribute information about the vessel.



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