Australian agency waited for boat debris before search

NATALIE O'BRIEN
Last updated 07:32 28/07/2013

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Australia's search and rescue agency refused to mount a search for an asylum seeker boat that sank seven weeks ago - killing 55 people, including two babies - despite mounting concerns about its safety, until debris was seen, official documents have revealed.

Documents obtained by Fairfax Media show there were concerns for the safety of the boat when first spotted by a customs surveillance plane ''dead in the water'' on June 5, directly contradicting federal government claims there was no indication of distress and people were on deck waving.

Fresh revelations of apparent delays by the Rescue Co-ordination Centre follow unsettling evidence of rescue delays from a Perth inquest into the sinking and deaths of 104 men last year and controversy about the federal government's decision to direct all asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young called for ''a rigorous, independent review'' of Australia's search and rescue protocols.

''The questions raised by the apparent resistance of RCC Australia to take charge of this rescue operation are very serious,'' Senator Hanson-Young said.

The operational running sheets from the centre, obtained under freedom-of-information laws, have revealed that, from the time the plane spotted the boat just 28 nautical miles north of Christmas Island, customs reported concerns for its safety because it wasn't moving.

Those concerns increased when the HMAS Warramunga was sent to check on it and it couldn't be found.

Despite rising levels of apprehension by the admiral in charge of Defence and Border Protection Command and explicit requests for the RCC to start a search, the RCC said it was ''unable to accept co-ordination at this time'' but would consider further indications of distress.

''If debris is sighted, the surveillance would then move to a SAR (search and rescue) phase,'' the documents said.

Two days later, the boat was found submerged and 13 bodies and debris were floating in the water. They were never recovered.

Former Australian ambassador Tony Kevin, the author of several books about Australia's response to asylum seeker boats in distress, said it was shocking that the RCC would wait until debris was found before taking action.

''Why was it not taken seriously? The fact that the engines were not running, that should have started all kinds of alarm bells ringing,'' he said.

The revelations follow evidence given in the West Australian Coroner's Court last week that the same agency that is run by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority was not proactive enough in helping an asylum seeker boat known as the SIEV 358, which sank just over a year before this latest boat, killing 104 men.

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That inquest has been told that the passengers on the SIEV 358 made 16 desperate phone calls pleading for help, saying the boat was broken and taking on water and they had no life jackets, but a search and rescue mission was not mounted until the boat had capsized.

AMSA manager Alan Lloyd revealed calls for help from asylum seeker boats were treated differently than other distress calls because of previous false alarms and what he called ''refugee patter''.

The WA Coroner, Alastair Hope, has already told the court that it is clear that if action had been taken earlier, those lives would have been saved.

In the June incident, an AMSA spokeswoman said at no stage had the vessel made contact with AMSA, or had AMSA had any specific information about its location or contact details.

Paris Aristotle, who was a member of former prime minister Julia Gillard's expert panel on asylum seekers, wrote an opinion piece in Fairfax Media about the tragedy and revealed that, at the time, there was an aerial photograph of the boat with the 55 men women and two babies on board.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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