Thursday, 28 June 2012

Refugee deaths off Christmas Island raise disturbing questions about Indonesian and Australian SAR efforts

Serious questions are been raised in Australia about the behaviour of both the Australian and Indonesian authorities regarding the sinking of a boat carrying 200 refugees off the Australian Christmas Island. The search for survivors was called off says later, with as many as 90 people feared dead. Six bodies have been recovered so far. The boat is believed to have started her voyage in Sri Lanka with mainly Afghan refugees- or asylum seekers, as Australia calls them. 

A spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said that there would not be a search for bodies off Christmas Island any longer. “The operation is now ceasing,” he said. “It is believed over 200 people may have been on board the vessel, but an accurate number may never be known,” he added.  The incident bore a striking similarity to the 2010 sinking of the boat 'Siev 221'-fifty people were killed in that disaster, including many children and babies as young as three months-old.

The backdrop to the tragedy is the fractured emotive and politically toxic issue of Australia’s overcrowded detention centres- including at Christmas Island, where the boat was heading- and the emergence of right wing- sometimes xenophobic- politics in connection with refugees. Australia guards its borders zealously, and asylum seekers are being sent to a notorious detention centre in Nauru, and, more recently, to Malaysia, besides Christmas Island.

Meanwhile, the latest tragedy- the capsized boat and ninety dead refugees- is still unfolding, and is threatened to be overshadowed by a report of a series of faxes between the Indonesian and Australian authorities that reveal what one commentator has called 'shameful behaviour'. 

The first fax was sent at 2.08am Sydney time last Wednesday, saying that the boat had telephoned AMSA to say that it was taking in water about 38 nautical miles south of Indonesian land; AMSA advised them to return back to Indonesia. The asylum seekers did not do this for obvious reasons. Six hours later, Indonesian SAR issued an alert asking ships to lookout for the vessel that was sinking. 

At 12.41pm, AMSA faxed Basarnas saying that the boat had called them again, saying that they were taking in water. "RCC passes this information to your centre for action," AMSA said. An Australian minister said that Australian planes had spotted the boat.

It was only the following afternoon- Thursday- when the situation had become critical, and after it was clear that no help was coming from Indonesia, that Australian rescue ships were dispatched. They found a capsized boat with bodies and people in the water, and many survivors clinging to the hull of the overturned boat. Another fax sent that evening to Basarnas said, "Australia hereby accepts co-ordination for the search and rescue incident involving the upturned unidentified distress vessel. Please acknowledge receipt of this message."

Australians are now asking why, if AMSA knew on Wednesday that the boat was doing only two knots in the opposite direction from the one they had recommended, if they knew for 30 hours that the boat was taking in water, and if they were getting calls from refugees fearful for their safety, then why nothing was done sooner. Critics concede that the boat was in the Indonesian SAR zone, but then, as one Australian paper says quoting the AMSA website, "so is Christmas Island."

"If an inquiry were to find that public servants even for a second considered the dire political scene in Canberra as they made life and death decisions, then the politicians who have engineered this deadly situation should be profoundly ashamed," the Sydney Morning Herald says.

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