New maritime rescue failure leaves unanswered questions


On Friday, Fairfax Indonesia correspondent Michael Bachelard reported on another ordeal at sea, over ten days between 27 April and 7 May. The story as we know it so far raises disturbing questions about Australia’s adherence to its rescue-at-sea obligations.

On 27 April, a boat left from an unknown location in Indonesia carrying 48 Iranian asylum seekers. They included 12 women and five children aged under six bound for Christmas Island.

Thirty hours out, the engine and pumps failed. Then they drifted for nine days, bailing by hand as the boat filled with water. On the third day, the (Indonesian) crew abandoned ship, swimming to other fishing boats nearby.

The passengers were left to drift for seven more days. Their food and water ran out. They suffered from sunburn, vomiting, and low glucose. It is a miracle that none died.

By the eighth day — 5 May — they were so desperate that two male passengers Sajad and Meisam set out for help in a makeshift raft. These men are presumed drowned.

Finally, on the tenth day at sea — 7 May — the passengers saw a surveillance aircraft overhead. Just three hours later they were rescued by an Indonesia-bound cargo ship, MV Aeolos. Their condition was described by their rescuers as tired, weak, dizzy and distressed.

They are now in detention in Merak. Bachelard met and interviewed them there. He also spoke with Dan Posadas, the chief officer of MV Aeolos.

Bachelard was advised by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA, which manages Rescue Coordination Centre Australia) that:

At approximately 6:15pm on Tuesday 7 May, RCC Australia received notification via Border Protection Command that a surveillance aircraft had detected a vessel that was stationary in the water 110 nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

RCC Australia issued a broadcast to shipping for vessels in the area to provide assistance. MV Aeolos was the closest available asset to respond to the distress broadcast. MV Aeolos responded to the RCC Australia’s broadcast and proceeded to the vessel’s location, arriving at 9:30 pm that day.

At approximately 2:00am on Wednesday 8 May, the master of the MV Aeolos reported to RCC Australia that all 47 people had been recovered from their vessel, which had been listing and was taking on water. The rescue occurred 110 nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

AMSA advised Bachelard that this information had been sourced from both AMSA and the Department of Customs and Border Protection, which runs Border Protection Command (BPC). AMSA later confirmed that the first notification it had received from Customs of the vessel in distress was at 6.15pm on 7 May.

Based on my previous research into rescues of asylum seekers at sea, I find this whole story disturbing.

My guess is that the boat must have left from somewhere on the south western coast of Java. After 30 hours at an average speed of about 5–8 nautical miles an hour, it would have perhaps got halfway to Christmas Island, possibly as close as 110 nautical miles from Christmas Island. Conditions were calm.

This area is under regular surveillance by Australian aircraft — high-flying RAAF Orions, or Dash 8 Customs aircraft — and possibly by Australian radar, looking for incoming suspected irregular entry vessels. I find it hard to believe that, before 7 May, Australian Customs did not have some human or maritime sourced intelligence of this vessel’s plight during the nine days the vessel was drifting 110 nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

Customs had had a good asylum-seeker boat rescue record over the past four months. Media releases by Minister Jason Clare show that at least 27 boats in distress have been assisted at sea by BPC vessels since 3 February. I have to ask how Customs could have missed this particular boat for so long. If they missed it, this would seem to be an operational failure. If they were aware of it before 7 May, this would raise other questions.

Finally why was it ‘detected’ by a low-flying BPC surveillance aircraft? How is it that the desperate people — by now near death — were finally rescued just three hours later by a conveniently close north-bound cargo ship?

I sense from my previous research into such incidents that there is a large back story yet to be told. We have not been advised that Customs’ first knowledge of the boat was on 7 May. If Customs had earlier intelligence of the boat’s presence, the failure to conduct search and rescue operations sooner would be reprehensible.

Our country’s obligations to rescue people in distress at sea should have nothing to do with policy to deter asylum seekers. Every person in distress at sea deserves prompt rescue action within our resources. Something went badly wrong in this case. It is incumbent on Clare to ask his Departmental secretary Michael Pezzullo for a full briefing on all prior Customs and Border Protection knowledge of this boat in the ten days before 7 May.

We can see from a photo taken from MV Aeolos that the boat was displaying an SOS sign on its roof.

Clare needs to ask Pezzullo why Australian search and rescue action was apparently delayed for so long — possibly, it would seem, until an Indonesia-bound cargo ship was conveniently nearby?

Only two people died, but the toll could easily have been far worse. This life-threatening history of an apparently mishandled rescue at sea needs to be held to public account. An election is only four months away. Whoever then takes government needs to inherit a border protection system that has clean hands.






Leave a reply