As the death toll among asylum seekers making their way to Australia by sea climbs to 400 in the past three years, authorities should reform their operational protocols — which are ad hoc and unpredictable — to save lives.

The issue of whether authorities can or should turn back asylum-seeker boats has been much discussed of late — but what about the related issue of how Australia should respond to phone calls from distressed vessels on their way to Christmas Island?

Both issues relate to maritime law and operational practice. The difference is that rescue-at-sea issues are being almost daily confronted now by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA, coming under the Transport Minister Anthony Albanese) and Border Protection Command (BPC, which reports to the Department of Customs and Border Protection coming under the Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare). Hundreds of people have died when they could and should have been saved.

AMSA and Customs (BPC) urgently need to reform their present operational protocols, or more asylum-seeker lives will be needlessly lost at sea.

Australia’s rescue-at-sea responses to distress calls from boats in international waters should be consistent and routine, regardless of the type of boat, its location, or the political climate in Australia at the time. Any distress call should be promptly checked, physically on the water, by the BPC or international merchant vessel that can reach the reported location most quickly.

If the distress is found to be genuine, the people should be rescued. If not, the boat should be left to continue on its route (whatever that is) through international waters, safely monitored by Australia. Boats should not be pressured to return to Indonesia. Decisions should be made by ships’ commanders on the spot, without political pressure from Canberra-based officials.

It is now clear that Australia’s response to distress-at-sea telephone calls from asylum-seeker boats is neither “consistent” nor “in accordance with the relevant conventions and international practices”, as was claimed recently by an AMSA spokeswoman. In reality, AMSA’s rescue response is ad hoc and unpredictable.

Most of the time, Customs and AMSA promptly launch a correct rescue-at-sea response, sending BPC ships to the area to physically check the circumstances of the asylum-seeker boat reporting distress. But other times, AMSA hospital-passes a distress call to the Indonesian search and rescue authority BASARNAS.

BASARNAS has neither resources nor desire to rescue asylum-seeker boats reporting distress in international waters (that is, beyond Indonesia’s 12-mile territorial waters) during attempted one-way journeys from Indonesia to Australia. Customs and AMSA then wait and watch to see what happens next.

When they do this, boats sink and people die. Sometimes (for example, with the boat that sank on June 21, 2012), Australia launches a belated rescue operation after seeing that a boat has capsized: 90 people drowned and 110 were rescued. Other times (for example, a boat that was “lost” in 2009 — result, 105 passengers missing presumed dead; and the Barokah which foundered in December 2011 — result, 150-200 missing presumed dead), Australia keeps well away until it is all over and there is no one alive left to rescue at sea. We are talking here about around 400 deaths at sea in three events in the past three years.

The AMSA spokeswoman agreed that AMSA’s rescue-at-sea practice is variable: “The operational circumstances may vary from incident to incident and it is these operational factors that shape the actual response”.

The problem is bedevilled by geography. Almost all the 200 nautical mile route from Indonesia to Christmas Island lies within Indonesia’s search and rescue (SAR) zone. This zone extends to south of Christmas Island. Australia’s legal SAR zone is simply the 12 nautical mile territorial sea around Christmas Island. Australia’s border protection system could position BPC ships at the 12 nautical mile northern boundary, waiting to intercept whichever boats make it that far, and ignoring distress calls or intelligence of distressed boats north of that boundary.

Normally, fortunately, BPC does better. As official media releases make clear, BPC regularly and pro-actively locates and when necessary rescues boats reporting distress from locations within the Indonesian SAR zone. BPC saves many lives in this way.

The death rate on asylum-seeker journeys to Australia used to be below 3%. But starting in December 2011, it has now risen to more than 4%.A spokesman for  Albanese said that where an incident occurs in another country’s SAR region, AMSA would normally act to provide assistance rather than lead the response itself. He said: “The requirement for co-ordination of effort becomes more compelling with incidents close to the Indonesian coast than it is further offshore towards Christmas Island.” In other words, we act when we choose to: rescue by choice.

Barokah (which sank in December 2011, drowning 150 to 200) is an especially disturbing case of Australian system failure. At the time, Clare claimed that “the information about this boat and the information about it capsizing off the coast of Java was provided by Indonesian authorities to Australian authorities”.  But in recent days, he revealed in an interview with Tony Negus that “we received calls from a vessel in distress last year in December that was very close to the Indonesian shoreline” — obviously in the context, Barokah.

Barokah reportedly foundered 40 nautical miles south of Java. O’Brien’s FOI searches revealed that Australian authorities refused to co-ordinate the search and rescue for Barokah, despite pleas for help from Indonesia because it lacked the resources. AMSA told BASARNAS that it was up to them to lead the mission.

The AMSA spokeswoman said the decision about Barokah was made because the boat was inside the Indonesian search-and-rescue zone. She said the agency offered support for “planning and drift modelling”.

Another distressing case occurred in June. AMSA reports a series of telephoned distress calls starting on June 19. The first calls were located 38 nautical miles south of Indonesia. In response, the AMSA Rescue Co-ordination Centre advised the vessel to return to Indonesia, and faxed BASARNAS requesting it to co-ordinate the incident. It is not clear if BASARNAS ever did anything.

The stricken vessel continued to limp slowly toward Christmas Island at two or three knots per hour, telephoning more distress calls. A routine BPC surveillance flight over the boat on June 20 reported “no visual sign of distress”.  Finally, on June 21 the capsized boat was seen from the air about 110 nautical miles north-west of Christmas Island. BPC ships were then ordered to rescue — too late. Only 110 people were rescued;  90 drowned who could have been saved if Australia had responded correctly to earlier distress calls. This was another system failure.