If the UK’s big scandal is about Westminster/VIPs child sex abuse, then Australia’s must be the offshore processing (imprisonment) of asylum-seekers, including the hundreds of deaths at sea that form part of this narrative. In the Mediterranean, hundreds of thousands of lives of refugees have been saved thanks to coordination between coastguard services, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and privately-funded rescue ops. In Australian waters and international waters, Australian Navy & Customs either kidnap and imprison asylum-seekers, or force their boats back. This is the scandal that Australians need to to take seriously: no more prevarication – this policy is about murder of men, women and children, abandoned and left to their fate. During the Abbott-led Government we have seen a ‘no comment’ cover-up of all aspects of the offshore programme, including the numbers of boats turned back (see also Breaking News, below). Fortunately, however, there has been research conducted on information available for the period prior to this wall of secrecy being erected. This research shows that from 1998 to 2013 a staggering 1500+ asylum-seekers have lost their lives at sea in or near Australian coastal waters, due to poor or non-existent rescue operations. That figure* is now, of course, drastically out of date and the fatality total is more likely to be closer to 2000. Below are the statistics and the research available (section B), preceded by two case studies. This data will undoubtedly form part of the overall and ongoing submission to the International Criminal Court against the Australian Government, alleging crimes against humanity.
* Combination of confirmed and probable deaths at sea (see tables below).
BREAKING NEWS: the latest turn-back concerns the fate of Vietnamese asylum-seekers in a boat sighted yesterday off the coast of Western Australia. The Australian Government has refused to comment on what has happened to the boat and its passengers. Amnesty International has issued a statement demanding the Government provide a report.
In March 46 asylum-seekers were returned by the Australian Navy to Vietnam without having their claims for asylum assessed. In July 2014 the Australian Government refused to comment on the return of 41 asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, following a brief interview at sea by phone.
A. Case Studies
In the dead of night on 17 December 2011, an asylum seeker boat called the Barokah left the coast of Java with around 250 men, women and children on board. One of them was ethnic Hazara man, Esmat Adine. The boat was so crowded, Adine couldn’t even find a place to sit. The Barokah was just 40 nautical miles from Indonesia when it fell apart.
‘At first I couldn’t believe that our boat has sank,’ Adine recalls. ‘But I saw a toy is coming from the inside of the boat; it is coming by water. When it comes close to me, I realised that no, that was not a toy. That was a kid. That was a kid named Daniel. Daniel was with his mother; they were sitting in front of me, next to me, while we came by bus. When I saw Daniel’s body, I realised that our boat has sank, and there is no further hope for us to be alive. ‘
Eight hours later, at 3 o’clock that afternoon, a passing fishing boat found around a hundred people in high seas, desperately clinging to debris. It was only able to rescue 34 people.Adine shouted to the people in the water, ‘Be patient—we will bring you more boats, and they will rescue you.’
In Canberra that evening, Australian agencies became aware the Barokah had sunk. They told Indonesian authorities, because the boat was in their search and rescue zone.
Months later, customs officials would tell a Senate Estimates hearing that Indonesia had initially declined Australia’s offer to help with the search and rescue. But the official incident timeline, which Fairfax obtained under freedom information laws, revealed that BASARNAS, Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, had asked AMSA to coordinate the rescue response—AMSA refused. For two days, while men, women and children struggled to survive in waves up to six metres high, Indonesia and Australia did nothing.Finally, on December 19, BASARNAS asked again for help. This time, AMSA agreed, and dispatched naval and Customs assets to the scene.
But it was too late. Two hundred and one people were dead.
… another boat sank, this time within easy reach of Australian patrol boats. A Customs plane sighted it 28 nautical miles from the island—just four miles outside its interception zone. Approximately 55 men, women, and children were seen on deck, waving at the plane.
After the event, the government claimed the boat had shown no visual signs of distress. But official documents from AMSA’s Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC), which Fairfax again obtained under freedom of information laws, showed that Customs had reported the boat as being ‘dead in the water’, and had been concerned about the boat from the moment they sighted it.
As the hours dragged on, the admiral in charge of Border Protection Command became increasingly concerned for the boat’s safety, and asked the RCC to initiate a search. But AMSA refused, saying they were still assessing the evidence. When debris is sighted, AMSA said, the surveillance would then move to a SAR phase. Two days later, the boat was found, capsized.
Thirteen bodies were found. There were no survivors.
Note: The above cases were quoted from Background Briefing (ABC Radio)…
- To see the full 14 page document “Drownings on the public record of people atempting to enter Australia irregularly…’ (which provides notes and clickable links that accompany the tables) click here.
- To see the 2 page document on ‘Mortality on attempted irregular…’ (again with notes and clickable links) click here.
- To see a 10 page document that provides data on boats carrying asylum-seekers returned (pushed back) to Indonesia by the Australian Navy & Customs up to February 2014, click here.