Questions have been raised about the preparedness of Customs and Australian Navy personnel in responding to last Wednesday’s Christmas Island asylum-seeker boat wreck, while the Greens are calling for an independent judicial inquiry into the tragedy.

At least 30 people died last week after rough seas and winds smashed an asylum seeker boat against the jagged cliffs of Christmas Island. While it is not the greatest loss of life to have resulted from the sinking of an asylum-seeker boat, graphic images of the ill-fated voyage have prompted increasing calls for a judicial inquiry into the incident.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens spokesperson on immigration, says that the photos and footage captured by Christmas Island locals and the media have sent a powerful message about the desperation of asylum seekers.

“We want to know how this happened, whether there was something that could have been done to avoid this tragedy,” Hanson-Young told Crikey. “We also want to know whether recommendations from previous inquiries were acted upon. We need an independent inquiry because we’ve never had one, not for SIEV X or for other similar incidents. This is a big enough issue that it can’t be left to an internal inquiry run by the agencies.”

There have been numerous calls for a judicial inquiry into the 2001 SIEV X disaster, which claimed the lives of 353 asylum seekers after their boat sank in international waters. The most recent push from the Greens was voted down by the Senate in 2008.

Pamela Curr, from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said that there were also lessons to be learnt from previous investigations into the deaths of asylum seekers at sea, including a West Australian Coronial inquiry into the drowning of two Afghanis in 2001.

On that occasion a rescue operation was performed after a boat carrying 164 asylum seekers caught fire off the coast of Ashmore Reef.

“There is a question hanging over Wednesday’s shipwreck which demands the scrutiny that only an independent judicial inquiry can answer,” Curr told Crikey. “Were the seaman who struggled to save people drowning in terrible seas equipped for the task?”

While the WA Coronial inquest into the Ashmore Reef deaths yielded an open finding and offered commendation for the performance of personnel in affecting the rescue, it did say that Customs and the Navy could have been better prepared.

It was contended to the Coroner by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission that Navy and Customs needed to be better equipped to deal with potential incidents that involve “large numbers of persons being forced into the sea”.

Written submissions on behalf of the commission suggested that the four tender rescue boats used in the 2001 incident were not sufficient.

WA Coroner Alastair Hope responded by saying that, without detailed information in relation to resources available to Customs and the Navy, “it is not possible to make specific comments or recommendations in this context”.

“But it is noted that for the purpose of the interception of major people trafficking activities, there are obvious benefits in using larger vessels with a number of tender vessels suitable for conducting rescue operations.”

According to Customs, two boats — the HMAS Pirie and the ACV Triton –– were dispatched last Wednesday in response to assist the stricken vessel off Christmas Island. They then launched two tender rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIBs) manned by Navy and Border Control personnel to help perform the rescue. Life rafts, life rings and life jackets were thrown into the water to help keep any survivors afloat.

Curr says that if more tender boats had been made available, perhaps more people could have been saved. The final figures are still unclear, but at least 30 people died in the shipwreck, while 42 survived. Due to the difficulty of conditions some bodies may never be recovered.

“There were only two boats available to dispatch survivors to Ethel Beach and then return to save more people. Wednesday’s tragedy saw seaman extending their bare hands in efforts to save people in the sea,” said Curr.

Last Wednesday’s boat sinking has been identified as being unusual because of its proximity to Christmas Island. Navy and Border Control personnel, as well as Christmas Island residents, have already told of the difficulty of the rescue due to the wild seas and jagged cliffs.

Michael Carmoday, CEO of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, and Commander of Border Protection Command, Rear Admiral Tim Barrett, have praised the efforts of the crew on board ACV Triton and HMAS Pirie.

“They braved strong winds and very rough seas with swells of three to four metres to launch their boats. To effect the rescue, these small tenders had to be manoeuvred skilfully in a very challenging sea state amongst floating debris and in close proximity to the very cliffs that had taken the SIEV,” the Customs website quotes the pair as saying.

At the 2001 WA Coronial Ashmore Reef inquest, Bradley Mulcahy, the commanding officer of one of the boats used in the rescue, recommended that larger scramble nets aboard the main ship would have assisted in pulling women and children onto the vessel. At least 10 women and four children died last week.

“We are left wondering if scrambler nets had been made available for survivors to keep themselves afloat, whether more people could have survived,” said Curr. “These were recommended by a previous Coronial inquiry.”

Mulcahy also said in 2001 that crew structures could be improved and that there should be more man overboard drills. Another official recommended that there be an increase in oxygen bottles available on board to personnel, that life jackets be improved and that there be more interaction between Navy and Customs officials in preparing for any rescue at sea.

Coroner Hope said at the time that some of these recommendations were being acted on. At a 2009 Northern Territory Coroners inquest into an asylum-seeker boat explosion at Ashmore Reef, which led to the drowning of five people, issues were raised with the use of life jackets and standing orders that Australian Defence Force personnel be saved before passengers.

Coroner Greg Cavanagh eventually found that, save for common sense with standing orders and life vests, the ADF were not at any fault for the deaths and that their conduct saved lives.

Hanson-Young says that the Greens have written to the government with suggestions of appropriate people to head an independent inquiry into the Christmas Island incident:

“We believe the appropriate person should be somebody with a high level of respect in the legal profession, detailed knowledge of the issues facing Australia’s management of asylum seekers, and an understanding of international law and human rights.”

A Customs spokesperson responded to Crikey‘s request for comment by saying that the nature of the injuries and deaths at Christmas Island will be considered by the WA Coroner.

Peter Fray

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