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Stop the deaths: rescuing asylum seekers is an integrity issue

We received news yesterday of the latest fatal capsize of a boat carrying asylum seekers towards Australia – the 20th reported sinking event in four years. The two deaths yesterday brought the confirmed…

Yesterday’s fatalities highlight the importance of ensuring Australian authorities continue to respond to asylum seekers caught at sea. AAP/Sharon Tisdale

We received news yesterday of the latest fatal capsize of a boat carrying asylum seekers towards Australia – the 20th reported sinking event in four years. The two deaths yesterday brought the confirmed and probable death toll to 865 people from sinking events since 2009.

As usual, key facts about the event are still scarce. According to home affairs minister Jason Clare’s media conference late yesterday, the boat had sent out a distress call on Sunday afternoon, but it was not boarded by officers from a Customs Border Protection Command response vessel - the ACV Ocean Protector - until Monday morning due to safety concerns over boarding at night. It was then handled as a normal maritime boundary interception.

The boat had way, but incomprehensibly, it was instructed to “heave to” to enable boarding. This was an irresponsible and dangerous decision in yesterday’s sea state 3 (usually waves of around 0.5 to 1.25 metres): the waves reached up to 2.5 metres according to border protection commander, Rear Admiral David Johnson. The boat’s foreseeable capsize minutes later put the Australian boarding party and the passengers at great risk.

Had the Ocean Protector simply instructed the boat by loud-hailer to follow it into safe waters behind Christmas Island, two passenger deaths and three critical injuries could have been avoided. There should be a coroner’s inquest to investigate responsibility for these poor decisions that defied elementary Safety of Life at Sea practice.

The stats don’t lie

This is all, sadly, familiar territory. First, there was Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X (SIEV X) in October 2001 – a pivotal event that stopped the boats coming for many years. Then, over the past four calendar years (2009-2012), my colleague Marg Hutton and I have monitored and researched each one of the 18 known founderings, sinkings or disappearances of asylum seeker boats bound for Australia.

A sinking boat with refugees aboard and a child in a life raft in the early 2000s - a decade on, little has changed. AAP/Defence

These 18 recorded events caused an estimated 860 confirmed or probable deaths over the four calendar years between 2009 and 2012. Then, in January 2013, another reported sinking with three people drowning; and two more people reported dead yesterday.

This is an average death rate over four years of between 2.5 and 3%, against reported numbers of arrivals.

Deaths peaked in the nine months between December 2011 and August 2012 with 515 confirmed or probable deaths in eight events. There were months of urgent public debate in Australia: both major parties pressed humanitarian arguments that to stop the deaths, offshore processing solutions must be quickly agreed. The mounting casualty rate seemed to strengthen those arguments.

Since laws to reopen Nauru and Manus Island were passed in September 2012, there have been only two reported sinkings, on October 26 last year and January 29 this year before yesterday’s events.

Stop the boats: the rhetoric hasn’t worked

Despite Nauru’s reopening, the boats are still coming at quite a rapid rate in 2013, as recorded in the regular media releases issued by the Minister for Home Affairs, Jason Clare.

The minister’s media releases show that between January 25 and March 20 this year there were 21 interceptions and eight rescues at sea. While exact locations are not stated, most rescues were in international waters and in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone, north of Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef. It would seem that every boat in distress is being rescued or intercepted.

My book, Reluctant Rescuers, analysed public evidence in the four cases of sunken or disappeared boats between 2009 and December 2011: two missing boats in 2009 and 2010, the Christmas Island shipwreck in December 2010, and Barokah which foundered south of East Java in December 2011.

I found that despite Australian intelligence-based knowledge of these four voyages, and publicly reported phone calls to Australia from each of them, over 400 people died because prompt and effective Australian Safety of Life at Sea responses were not forthcoming.

The Western Australia coroner’s inquest into the shipwreck of SIEV 221 at Christmas Island reported explicit reluctance by the Australian border protection system to acknowledge its own responsibilities to protect asylum seekers’ lives at sea.

Essentially, an official view was presented that until a boat physically appears on Australia’s maritime borders in distress, there is no requirement for Australian authorities to search and rescue. Prior intelligence-based knowledge of lives likely to be in danger on incoming asylum seeker boats creates no legal obligation to act.

Yet it is clear that intelligence-based information, and even in some cases distress calls directly telephoned to Australian authorities from boats in trouble, have triggered every Australian maritime interception or rescue action. Most times, our response vessels get there in time to save most lives. But 860 deaths in four years is no small matter.

This issue is not about interception resources, which are on station anyway. It is about a willingness to evaluate and promptly to manage known or anticipated risks to life on boats trying to reach Australia, but that would sink if left unaided by Australia. This is both an ethical and a governance issue.

Formulating an ethical response

As sinkings continued between May and August last year, I gave written and oral evidence to Angus Houston’s expert panel on asylum seekers. Their report helpfully lists Australia’s rescue at sea responsibilities under international law for asylum seekers in distress.

Asylum seekers from Sri Lanka on their way to Christmas Island, inside a detention centre in Indonesia. EPA/Dedi Sahputra

The record of the past four years and yesterday’s events - as well as the earlier SIEV X tragedy - shows that continued public vigilance is needed to ensure Australia’s high rescue at sea values and practices are not eroded or compromised by considerations of deterrence of irregular boat voyages under present or future governments.

The indivisible obligation to protect all human life in distress at sea is embedded in international maritime law and custom. Every professional mariner, military or civilian, understands and respects this. It is important that Australia’s politicians and border protection policymakers continue to understand it too.

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