Deaths at sea: government policy is killing refugees

Following two asylum boat sinkings in June, the Government has used asylum seeker deaths at sea to justify its anti-refugee policies. The only way to stop refugees dying is to “stop the boats”, they say. But it is the Government’s own “border protection” and anti-people smuggling policies that have led directly to the deaths at sea.

The hopeless search and rescue response to the boat sinking on June 21 shows how Australia’s policies have compromised lives. Faxes sent to Indonesian search and rescue reveal Australian authorities knew almost 40 hours before it capsized that the boat had “suffered hull damage and was taking on water”. But they simply instructed it to return to Indonesia, something asylum seekers will not do because they would face immediate arrest and detention. Rescue operations were left to Indonesia for 36 hours before Australian boats responded. Ninety people drowned.


Yet the Australian authorities were fully aware that Indonesia lacks the resources to respond to emergencies at sea. Head of Indonesian search and rescue Vice Marshall Daryatmo told the Sydney Morning Herald that, “his agency has only one small fibreglass-hulled rescue boat, based in Jakarta, to deploy in the ocean between Java and Christmas Island”. And it cannot be used on the open seas. Indonesia plans to buy a larger boat, but that too will be based in Jakarta, 11 hours from likely rescue areas. Since the sinking, Australia has been able to respond to boats’ distress calls within hours.

Reluctant rescuers
Why didn’t Australian search and rescue act more quickly on June 21? Tony Kevin, author of the new book Reluctant Rescuers, believes that the focus on “stopping the boats” has sabotaged rescue efforts. He told ABC’s Radio National that, “our border protection command… explicitly takes no responsibility for the safety of life at sea of the people travelling on the boats.”

Border Protection Command’s Rear Admiral Tim Barrett revealed the official mindset at an earlier boat sinking inquiry. It was not his organisation’s job to anticipate that boats approaching Australia might get into trouble, he said, nor was there any other organisation with that responsibility. Their job was deterrence.
But deterrence policies cost lives. As Fairfax journalist Natalie O’Brien recently revealed the Australian Federal Police (AFP) took four hours to pass on vital information about a boat sinking in October 2009. All 105 passengers on that boat drowned because the AFP was more worried about protecting a spy working in a people smuggling network than saving asylum seekers’ lives.

Reluctant Rescuers is a forensic examination of the evidence from inquiries and media investigations of refugee deaths at sea, going back to the 2001 SIEV X disaster in which 353 asylum seekers drowned.

Australia’s efforts to deter boats have made the voyages much more dangerous and “drove the trade deeper underground”, he argues. Australia destroys boats when they arrive, imprisons crewmembers in Australia and has pressured the Indonesian government to detain asylum seekers and crack down on smuggling. The result of this is that asylum seekers are forced to take unsafe boats as smuggling becomes more precarious.

Kevin’s book also reveals the extent of Australia’s intelligence gathering and disruption operations in Indonesia. Under the Howard Government, the AFP “sailed close to the borders of legality” themselves and likely had knowledge of explicitly illegal behaviour by Indonesian police they worked with.

The Labor government began similar efforts in 2009. An extra $654 million was allocated to “preventing people smuggling” in 2009-10. In one year there were “81 disruptions of people-smuggling ventures in Indonesia, resulting in the detention of 1237 foreign nationals [i.e. asylum seekers] by Indonesian authorities”, according to then Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O’Connor.

Tony Kevin’s earlier book on the SIEV X, A Certain Maritime Incident, raised many unanswered questions about that tragedy. Similar disturbing questions surrounding another boat from December 2011, the Barokah, suggest it may have been designed to sink. Perhaps the deaths of 150 to 200 people on this boat were meant as the ultimate message of deterrence to others? If this is where the efforts to “stop the boats” lead it is indeed shocking.

There is now a mountain of evidence showing efforts to “stop the boats” cost asylum seekers’ lives.

It is sheer hypocrisy for the Government to claim otherwise.

James Supple

Buy Tony Kevin’s new book at


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