Monday, December 19, 2011


Questions surround latest asylum seeker boat disaster

Tony Kevin December 18, 2011

Eureka Street

Reports started coming in on Sunday about another major boat disaster en route to Christmas Island. Questions surround this latest tragedy, ten years after SIEV X and one year after the SIEV 221 shipwreck.

BBC News Asia reported the sinking location as about 90km out to sea. ABC News gave the same location. BBC reported at least 250 people were on board. Some reports put the number as high as 380.

The vessel appeared to have been carrying more than twice its capacity. It 'sank Saturday evening and the national search and rescue team [BASARNAS] has already moved out to sea to start the search', rescue team member Brian Gauthier told Indonesian news agency Antara. Gauthier's position is unstated: he may be an Australian Maritime Safety Authority secondment to BASARNAS (AMSA has extensive rescue at sea training-type cooperation underway).

Extreme weather caused reduced visibility. An Afghan survivor told Antara the ship rocked violently, triggering panic among the tightly packed passengers. This made the boat even more unstable and it sank. He and others clung to wreckage and were rescued by local fishermen. He estimated more than 40 children were on the boat.

This account recalls the details of SIEV X: a grossly overloaded, top-heavy boat capsizes after rocking violently in extreme weather; a few survivors are later rescued by local fishermen.

ABC News and Antara sources offer more detail as to the location of these events. Gauthier told Antara some of the rescued are in Prigi in eastern Java, around 30km from where the boat sank. Some survivors are in Trenggalek, a town about 20km further inland. Both places are around 200km east of Jogyakarta, in the Java southern coastal region (and about 350km east of Cilicap, where another sinking took place a few weeks ago).

Antara says the sinking location 'is estimated to [be] within 20-30 miles from the boundary waters Prigi Coast'. This would seem to locate the sinking in international waters outside the Indonesian contiguous zone, about 30km or more south of Prigi Beach.

Christmas Island — about 700km away in a WSW direction — was the most likely destination from this area. But this is an unusually long route, about twice as long as the direct route south from the Sunda Strait/Panaitan Island area. If the boat started from east of Prigi, its route towards Christmas Island would be diagonal to the coast — which could indeed put its sinking location about 30km from the coast after 90km travelling.

There are more parallels here with SIEV X: a circuitous route from a long way off, yet a sinking location finally not far outside Indonesian contiguous waters, far from Australian waters, and in the Indonesian search and rescue zone; and plausibly accessible to Indonesian fishing boat rescue.

The circumstances raise similar intelligence-related questions as those raised by SIEV X. How did fishing boats find survivors? How did anyone know where the boat was? Were there tracking devices on board? Were there intercepted distress messages from passengers using GPS-reading satellite phones, to relatives, to Indonesia, or to 000 in Australia? Did AFP inform AMSA of any distress message and location? Did AMSA inform BASARNAS?
This overloaded boat must have been at sea at least 15 hours to have got 90km from its embarkation point. Were there any monitored pre-embarkation phonecalls by passengers to family members (as there usually are these days)? Would the Australian border protection intelligence system have picked up such messages? What did they do with them, and when?

The events have a similar smell to them as SIEV X: of a possible Indonesian police (INP) illegal disruption operation, from a remote location, highly profitable and sending a terrible deterrent message to others.

As former AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty testified in the Senate CMI inquiry in 2002, 'though the AFP would never ask the INP to do anything illegal, once they have asked the INP to do anything to disrupt the movement of people smugglers, the AFP has to leave it in the INP's hands as to how they do it. Recent Senate Estimates Committee testimony by Customs suggests nothing much has changed.'

As with SIEV X, the Australian border protection system is far from the scene. And with all intelligence information being withheld on national security grounds, we may never know how this latest tragedy happened — as with SIEV X, SIEV 221 and the lost boats in 2009 and 2010.

Australian politicians and officials will blame the easy target we have been taught to hate: people smugglers. The tragedy will be exploited by both sides of politics. Gillard will use it to pressure Abbott to pass her legislation to enable Malaysian offshore processing. Abbott will use it to pressure her for Navy towback of boats, and for Nauru — as SIEV X was exploited by Howard to force Indonesia to accede to Australian towbacks.

It is an indictment of Australia's border protection system, including its secret intelligence-based parts, that such disasters go on happening, and that the Australian system continues to avoid admitting any degree of knowledge or accountability.

I will continue to research these issues, asking fact-based questions that the Australian Government would prefer not be asked. I do this because deaths of people at sea in these numbers are intolerable in any decent society that claims to conduct intelligence gathering on people smugglers, and people smuggling disruption operations in cooperation with the INP, by lawful means.

Tony Kevin is an author and former ambassador to Cambodia and Poland whose 2004 book A Certain Maritime Incident sparked debates about Australia's moral responsibilities on the high seas.