Search and rescue efforts for survivors of capsized boat

Mr LYONS (Bass) (14:11): My question is to the Minister for Home Affairs, Minister for Justice, and Minister for Defence Materiel. Will the minister update the House on the search and rescue efforts for survivors of the boat that capsized last week?

Mr CLARE (Blaxland – Minister for Home Affairs, Minister for Justice and Minister for Defence Materiel) (14:11) Can I thank the member for his question. As question time was coming to an end last Thursday a Border Protection Command Dash 8 aircraft spotted a capsized boat with approximately 40 people crowded on its hull 110 nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

This triggered a massive search and rescue effort involving Navy patrol boats, surveillance aircraft and merchant ships. By late that night 110 people had been plucked from the sea. The search and rescue effort continued into the night, into the next day and the day after that. Unfortunately, no more people were found alive.

The search for survivors was suspended at 8.44 pm Saturday night Australian Eastern Standard Time. There were, reportedly, 200 people on board this vessel. We may never know for certain but it is likely that approximately 90 people may have lost their lives. The bodies of 17 people have been recovered. Initial reports were that all of the survivors were adults except a 13-year-old boy. The latest information that I have is that the survivors included nine unaccompanied male juveniles.

All surviving passengers were transferred to Christmas Island. Four survivors have since been transferred to Perth for medical treatment.

I have said that this tragedy needs to be fully investigated to ensure that everything that should have been done was done. An independent inquiry will be conducted by the Western Australian coroner. WA Police and the Australian Federal Police are investigating the incident and are also working to identify victims. Initial interviews with survivors have begun and they will continue over the coming days. A whole-of-government review will also be conducted. This will involve Customs and Border Protection, Defence and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

As the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have said, over the last few days we have again witnessed Australian men and women putting their own lives at risk, reaching out a long way from our own shore to save the lives of people they have never met and do not know. They have worked around the clock in what has been a massive search and rescue effort.

Can I say again on behalf of everyone here, a big thankyou to the men and women of the Royal Australian Navy, Border Protection Command, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the merchant ships who came to the rescue. Over the last few days they have seen some truly horrifying things and they have responded with remarkable work. I need to advise the House that a critical incident mental health support team has now been deployed to Christmas Island to assist these brave men and women.

This is yet another terrible tragedy. It is incumbent now on all of us to learn from this. To work together and to act to help ensure this never happens again.