Boat that sank was “not in distress”: AMSA


AUSTRALIAN authorities ruled a doomed asylum seeker boat was not in distress before it sank in rough seas between Indonesia and Christmas Island claiming more than 100 lives, an inquest has heard.

The termite-riddled boat carrying 212 passengers and crew did not even reach halfway to Christmas Island from Java before sinking in June last year, resulting in the deaths of 102 men and boys.

Repeated calls from the Siev 358 to Australia’s Rescue Co-ordination Centre (RCCA) in Canberra claimed the ship was damaged, taking on water and that the passengers were scared and had no life jackets.

But at an inquest into 17 of the deaths, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority search and rescue manager Alan Lloyd said his staff made the assessment the boat was not in “grave and imminent danger” – and then passed over the rescue responsibility to the Indonesians.

“I don’t classify it as a distress call,” Mr Lloyd told West Australian coroner Alastair Hope.

“Refugee vessels tend to follow a script and give misleading information, and we have to verify that independently. We listen and decide whether it is accurate information or whether they are using a process.

“When misleading information is given, what can the RCCA do?”

Under questioning from counsel assisting the coroner, Marco Tedeschi, Mr Lloyd cited figures that around 75 per cent of asylum seeker vessels request assistance of Australia – with only eight subsequently sinking.

At the opening of the inquest on Tuesday, it was revealed Siev 358’s first position was just 36 nautical miles south of the Sunda Strait, which prompted Australia to tell those aboard they were in Indonesian waters and should turn back.

But Mr Tedeschi outlined a 2004 bilateral agreement that says the nation which receives the first distress call is responsible for a rescue – meaning Australia should have acted.

Indonesian authorities accepted responsibility for the rescue 11 hours later but no helicopter, marine police or merchant vessel responded, no naval vessel was ever called, and they turned down an offer from Australia to issue another mayday call.

Stephen Owen-Conway, lawyer for AMSA, told Mr Hope their legal position was that once Indonesia accepted responsibility, Australia had no legal right to intervene unless specifically asked to.

But when Mr Hope asked whether Australian authorities could have offered their assistance to the rescue effort sooner, Mr Lloyd agreed there had been nothing stopping them.

The inquest was played audio of calls between the Australian and Indonesian rescue teams, in which staff in Jakarta suggested a naval vessel had already left on a rescue mission.

But no vessel – naval or otherwise – arrived until nearly two days after the first call from the boat.

Almost 32 hours after the first distress call the boat capsized and a further eight hours passed before a Customs flight saw the stricken boat, and Australia called all ships in the area to assist.

A merchant vessel, MV Dragon, responded within two minutes, and was rescuing survivors within 90 minutes.







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