Asylum seekers intercepted by Australian authorities should be informed where they are being taken. But it seems many are still being left in the dark.

In the wake of the SIEV 36 disaster, the boat that exploded near Ashmore Reef killing five people, processing changes meant informing people about what is going to happen to them and issuing language cards that explain they will be taken to “Australian authorities”. Stephen Walsh QC, counsel assisting the coroner, last week  told the inquiry the changes to how the defence force handles unauthorised arrivals meant coroner Greg Cavanagh need not consider making any recommendations.

I have asked four people from four different boats — rescued by Navy and Customs since the SIEV 36 disaster —  if they were informed about what was happening to them. I asked specifically if they were told that they were being taken to Christmas Island. In each case they said no. The most recent person was rescued in November 2009.

That man has no complaints about his treatment at the hands of Customs, but he reports sitting on the deck of a vessel for three days, apprehensive and anxious. Some among the group believed they must be going to Christmas Island while others worried that they were going back to Indonesia.

It was only when they arrived at Christmas Island that one of the Customs officers said quietly “don’t worry mate, it is Christmas Island”. The question has to be asked — why is it necessary to leave vulnerable people  in total uncertainty after they have been rescued?

I have checked with the most recent arrivals — the practice is still to tell them nothing. This is irrespective of nationality. Some have been aboard Navy boats for up to 11 days floating around not knowing what is going to happen.

I have also checked on the language cards. No one with whom I have spoken, including those from recent boats, has seen these cards in English or in any other language.

Were questions  asked during the coronial inquiry about these changes and, more importantly, their implementation? In essence what the changes are supposed to do is to explain to asylum seekers, at the point of  rescue, exactly where they are going to be taken. Surely questions such as when the cards were printed, how many have since been given out and the content of the cards are essential in light of calls for no recommendations for changes to naval procedures?

Surely the Navy is required to provide proof of its claims that it has changed its procedures in face of an appalling loss of life? Or is it immune from examination.

And why is the content of the cards not being questioned? It is hardly reassuring to asylum seekers to be told “we are going to take you to Australian authorities”. What does this mean?

Indonesia is crawling with “Australian authorities”. The Australian Federal police are everywhere — in Indonesian detention centres and sidling around with the Indonesian military and police. Australia pays the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to record all asylum seeker arrivals. The statement is oblique and confusing at best.

Furthermore, has an independent assessment been made of the translations to ensure that they say what is meant? It would not be the first time an unfortunate choice of words has turned up in translation.

Why do the cards not say “we are taking you to Christmas Island”? This would provide real reassurance. Asylum seekers know what this means. Why are we fudging the destination? Is it because our Prime Minister, like his predecessor, is still hedging his bets on turning boats back if he thinks he can get away with it? Are the decisions regarding the  destination of boats still being made by Prime Minster and cabinet? Is the Navy still hostage to these decisions?

If  the purpose of this coronial inquiry is to determine what happened and how and why deaths took place in an effort to ensure the circumstances leading to loss of life are not repeated, more questions need to be asked. Policy changes must be  put into practice. Asylum seekers must have the right to know where they are being taken and what is going to happen to them.

The Navy and Customs officers are entitled to clear guidelines to make decisions that ensure safety of life at sea (or SOLAS). This sacred duty of  the sea  must be made without reference to politicians thousands of kilometres away in Canberra. No one knows except the participants what happens on the high seas.

It is dangerous territory when you have vulnerable people with no rights in the hands of people with consummate power. Australians need to have trust that the Navy is not being ordered by our government to place lives at risk for political imperatives that breach human rights and the international conventions in the process. The findings and recommendations of this coronial inquiry could provide a basis for this trust.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey