Red tape delayed search for missing refugee boat


A bureaucratic bungle… commission hears details of a delayed sea rescue where 105 asylum seekers drowned. Photo: AFP

AN ASYLUM-SEEKER boat that is believed to have sunk, drowning 105 Hazaras on board, was left floundering and ”taking on water” for almost four hours before Australian authorities activated a rescue mission.

Customs and Border Protection officials admitted in a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday that red tape was the reason for the delay in relaying the distressed boat’s co-ordinates to Australia’s sea rescue agency.

The boat carrying men, women and children went missing on October 3, 2009, on its way from Indonesia to Christmas Island, after Australian authorities learnt it was in distress. Those on board have vanished and relatives fear they have all drowned.

Questions have since been raised about what happened to the boat and what the Australian authorities knew about it. The federal opposition had called for a detailed explanation after claiming the government had made contradictory statements about what information they had about the missing boat.

Details about the ill-fated boat trip only came to light in early 2010, after relatives of the missing contacted Australian authorities asking for information.

They had also told the Afghan community leader Hassan Ghulam that the last time they had heard from their relatives – all Persian-speaking Hazaras from Afghanistan – was in telephone calls from the missing boat saying that they were in international waters.

The federal government initially denied any knowledge of the boat. However, after a review of government files, the former minister for home affairs Brendan O’Connor admitted the government had received a distress call from the boat but also that it had received ”credible information” the boat had overcome those difficulties.

Customs and Border Protection also said that they had told the Australian Maritime Safety Authority as soon as they got the information that the boat was in distress.

But a new timeline of events obtained by the Herald under freedom of information laws revealed that was not the case. The heavily-redacted documents show the government had been tracking the vessel as it left Indonesia and had known before 12pm on October 3, 2009 that the boat was in trouble.

It was not until 3.33pm that day, according to the documents, that Border Protection told Maritime Safety about the distress situation and released the boat’s co-ordinates.

In estimates hearings on Tuesday, the deputy chief executive of Border Enforcement, Marion Grant, corrected the parliamentary record when she revealed the agency had not acted immediately to send help to the boat.

After questioning by Liberal Senator Michaelia Cash, Ms Grant revealed the reason for the long delay had been because Border Protection officers did not know how to deal with classified information.

She said details of the distress call came from a secret source, and it took officers three hours and 33 minutes to come up with a ”set of words” that could be used to tell Maritime Safety about how they knew the boat was in trouble and where it was. Border Protection has always refused to say how it knew the boat was in trouble because that was classified information.

When the information was finally passed to Maritime Safety, the agency pinpointed the boat to be in Indonesian waters and requested Indonesian search and rescue take over the incident.

But by the time Indonesian search and rescue reached the area that night, they could not find a boat in distress.