What do authorities do when an asylum seeker dies while attempting to reach Australia? It’s a morbid and rather gruesome topic that Australian — and Indonesian — authorities regularly have to deal with, and not just when the public is outraged about the bodies of asylum seekers remaining in the water.

Around 1800 people are thought to have drowned while attempting to reach Australian since 2000, including a suspected 55 people who drowned following a boat sinking off Christmas Island last week. Another boat has gone missing overnight, and the number of asylum seekers aboard is unknown. In April, a boat sunk off the Javanese coast with over 70 on board, and just 14 people survived. In August 2012, another 100 asylum seekers drowned off a similar patch of Indonesia coast. Fifty people died in December 2010 after a boat crash off Christmas Island.

Authorities have been criticised for not retrieving the 13 dead bodies that were spotted in the water following the most recent Christmas Island disaster. But there is no obligation under international law for Australian authorities to perform search and rescue for deceased persons. Border Protection Control officials are currently aiding the fourth asylum seeker boat in just a few days, and resources are stretched. Indonesian authorities have also been slammed in the past for their delay in starting search and rescue operations for survivors after boats have sunk.

Experts say human remains usually decompose within 28 days at sea (at least in Australia’s warm water). Authorities are more likely to retrieve bodies if a boat sinks near a coast, in order to lessen the chances of a deceased person floating on to land.

But what happens once a body has been retrieved? Funeral arrangements are decided on a case-by-case basis, after consultation with family — if the body is able to be identified, says the Department of Immigration.

Identification isn’t always easy. The Australian Federal Police are responsible for identifying a body in accordance with a request from the coroner. The process can include compiling evidence from survivors, family members and friends (both overseas and in Australia) and others in Indonesia who were aware of who boarded the boat. DNA evidence is often used.

After the horrendous 2010 Christmas Island boat crash, where a boat laden with asylum seekers smashed into the island’s cliffs, dental records were obtained from the asylum seekers’ families and countries of origin, and these were compared with the dead to provide identification. In that instance, 30 bodies were recovered from the water. Another 20 bodies were never found, although the State Coroner recorded their deaths in the inquest into the crash. Clarifying the identities of the bodies that weren’t recovered proved extremely difficult, with the inquest report noting:

“In many cases there was evidence that the persons suspected of being deceased had left Iran or Iraq, but evidence as to their being on the boat in question was lacking. This situation was further complicated by the fact that many of the witness statements obtained had been obtained for other purposes and only dealt with the identity of the missing persons in an indirect and inconclusive way. A further problem related to the fact that many of those on the vessel were known by a number of different names and those names did not translate easily from the language of origin into English and spellings were inconsistent.

“WA Police officers were required to obtain a number of additional statements from family members, some of whom were able to identify those missing using photographs of passengers on the vessel taken by those on shore shortly before it sank.”

But not all boats sink next to a shore with cameras.

The responsibility of burial lies with the next of kin. If next of kin cannot be identified then the state, i.e. Western Australia for deaths off Christmas Island, will organise a burial. If the next of kin is also on Christmas Island or somewhere else within the Department of Immigration’s care, then the Department of Immigration will work with them to arrange a funeral.

Muslim burial customs indicate that a body should be buried as soon as possible, and Australian authorities will negotiate with religious organisations regarding burial customs. The Australian government also expatriates bodies back to their country of origin if the family requests it. After the 2010 Christmas Island boat crash, seven bodies were returned to Iraq, two to Iraq and 12 were buried in Sydney, where they had family.

The whole process is made more complicated by the number of authorities involved, including the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Australian Customs and Border Protection, Australian Federal Police and the Department of Immigration.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey