Press Conference – Customs House, Canberra


Press Conference with Rear Admiral David Johnston RAN

Customs House, Canberra

25 March 2013

Topics: Asylum seeker vessel

JASON CLARE: I’m here with the Commander of Border Protection Command, Admiral David Johnston, and we’ve just been briefed by the team at the Border Protection Command operation centre just across the road and I’m in a position now to give you the latest information that we have.

Let me place upon this the important caveat that the information that we have is subject to change. This is the initial advice that I have that I can pass on to you now.

At about four o’clock Australian Eastern Daylight Saving Time yesterday, a Customs and Border Protection Dash 8 aircraft detected a vessel that was 76 nautical miles north northwest of Christmas Island. At approximately 9.30 last night, AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s Rescue Coordination Centre received a call from a person on a vessel believed to be requiring assistance approximately 55 nautical miles north northwest of Christmas Island.

At that time, the nature of the assistance required was unknown. At 10.13pm last night, Ocean Protector was tasked to head to that location and left Christmas Island. At approximately 3am this morning – again, this is Australian Eastern Daylight Saving Time – Ocean Protector detected a vessel that was by then 33 nautical miles north of Christmas Island and the advice that I’ve been given this afternoon is that at that time that vessel didn’t appear to be in distress.

At approximately 11am Australian Eastern Daylight Saving Time this morning, or 7am local time, Ocean Protector approached the vessel that was by this stage about 14 nautical miles north of Christmas Island. And the initial advice I have that I can give you now is that Ocean Protector’s tender response vessels were deployed and headed toward the vessel.

At this point the vessel stopped and two officers from Customs and Border Protection Command boarded the vessel. At about that time, two large waves hit the vessel. The vessel rolled and a number of people entered the water.

I can advise you now that the two Customs and Border Protection officers were recovered and are safe and uninjured. The men of – the men and the women of Border Protection Command acted quickly to rescue the people that had gone into the water.

Ninety five people in all have been recovered but I have to advice you that that includes two people who are deceased. One of those is a young male, approximately four to five years of age, and a female in her 30s. Two others are seriously injured. One of those is a young male, approximately six to seven years of age, and the other is a pregnant woman in her 20s.

A Dash 8 surveillance aircraft and HMAS Maitland remain in the search and rescue area and continue the search effort. The initial advice that has been given to me is that Border Protection Command believe they have rescued all of the people who were on that vessel. But it is important to make sure that the search continues just in case there is anybody else that are there.

Can I use this opportunity to thank the men and the women of Border Protection Command for the work they do. The dangerous and the difficult work that they do, proven again today just how dangerous this work is and also thank the people who work at AMSA and the Rescue Coordination Centre for the work that they do.

Let me also make this point. The men and women of Border Protection Command today have experienced another tragic event and two of our men and women have been onboard the vessel as it founded and as people went into the water, and it’s very important that we provide them with all of the support services and the counselling and assistance that is necessary when an event like this happens. I am advised that counselling services are being organised as we speak and those counsellors will fly from WA and land at Christmas Island tomorrow.

Happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Minister, the ship you said it rolled. Did it capsize?

JASON CLARE: I might ask Admiral Johnston to elaborate here. The advice that I’ve been given, and this is only moments old, is that the vessel stopped and that allowed the Border Protection tenders to go up to the vessel. Two officers of Border Protection Command embarked on vessel and at that time two waves hit the boat that caused the boat to roll over on its side and a number of individuals went into the water.

I don’t have information for you, I’ve pretty sure Commander, we don’t have confirmation whether everyone went into the water or just a number of individuals. We’ll get more information in the hours ahead.

DAVID JOHNSTON: That advice is right. So to the best of our understanding the vessel stopped at the point that the tender from the Ocean Protector came along side it. While that vessel was stopped a large wave hit it. That caused the vessel to roll. I think people, probably at that point, moved to the downside of it and a second wave appears to have hit the vessel, which caused it to roll over further and take on water.

QUESTION: What sort of vessel was it? How could you describe it? Fishing boat or?

DAVID JOHNSTON: A typical Indonesian fishing boat probably around 12 to 15 metres in length. Quite common to what we find in the waters around Christmas Island.

QUESTION: So do you know how many people went into the water? Rough estimate in total?

DAVID JOHNSTON: We believe there were 95 people in total onboard. I’m uncertain how many were in the vessel with water in it or were outside of the vessel, but we are confident that we have recovered all that we saw in the water.

QUESTION: Were they mainly men or adults or women and children?

DAVID JOHNSTON: A range. There are men and women and some juveniles within the 95. The numbers are still being confirmed but I think around 17 juveniles amongst the 95.

QUESTION: Do you know where they came from?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Nationalities are still unclear. Of course at the moment we’re in the process of transferring people ashore, particularly into medical care, but the initial indication would suggest that from Afghanistan, potentially from other Middle-Eastern countries as well.

QUESTION: Can you tell us about the condition of the two injured people?

DAVID JOHNSTON: The two people that were recovered from the water that were injured? Both appear to have suffered some breathing difficulties. We think that was from ingesting water and potentially some diesel that was on the surface of the water but both have been stabilised and are now in medical care.

QUESTION: Can you explain just why there wasn’t an attempt to try and transfer people off the vessel earlier when it was first spotted and intercepted? Why did we wait until [indistinct] comes in.

DAVID JOHNSTON: The protocol in these circumstances are particularly conducting boardings at night are dangerous. In the absence of an immediate appearance of distress our preference would be to conduct a day boarding. It’s safer for our people and often for those that are onboard. In this case the boarding occurred not long after first light. First light at Christmas Island was at about 6:30 local time, 10:30 local Canberra time and the boarding commenced about 40 minutes after first light.

QUESTION: When the Minister said 4 o’clock, that’s 4:00am? You said 4 o’clock, that’s 4:00am in the morning.

JASON CLARE: That was 4:00pm yesterday. That was – so just to be clear, the Dash 8 aircraft identified the vessel at 4:00pm Australian Eastern Daylight Saving time yesterday, then the phone call seeking assistance was 9:30 Australian Eastern Daylight Saving time yesterday.


JASON CLARE: That’s right. 9:30pm. Ocean Protector identified and located the vessel at 3:00am Australian Eastern Daylight Saving time this morning. It – the tenders arrived at the vessel at 11:00am Australian Eastern Daylight Savings time this morning and Nick, to your point – so that’s around about 7:00am or just after first light in the morning. I should make this point as well – the sea state, I’m advised, is about sea state three, and as you would appreciate when a vessel stops motoring along its stability is significantly reduced, so when the vessel stopped and the boarding party boarded the vessel and was hit by two waves its stability was severely decreased and as a result took on water and a number of people entered the water.

QUESTION: How rough is sea state three for the laymen amongst us?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Sea state three, you might be looking around 15 knots worth of wind and swell height that could be around about a metre, but clearly the patterns of waves can be – you can get larger waves in that general sea state condition, and that is what appeared to have occurred in this circumstance.

QUESTION: How big would the larger waves be?

DAVID JOHNSTON: I don’t have that information.

QUESTION: When they called for help at 9:30 last night, what did they actually say on the phone?

DAVID JOHNSTON: You’d need to get the details of that from RCC who were the predominate response agency for that, but my understanding is that initially the concern was that they were lost.

QUESTION: Minister, a lot of locals on the island are talking about – they’re saying there’s a lot more boats that are due to come into Christmas Island in the next couple hours or days. There’s been a huge number of vessels that have arrived on Christmas Island in the last month. What’s the reason that we’re seeing for the spike in in the last couple of weeks.

JASON CLARE: We’re entering the end of the monsoon season and the weather conditions off the coast of Christmas Island have improved dramatically over the course of, I’m advised, the last nine to ten days, and as a result of that, you’re seeing an increase in the number of boats that are travelling to Christmas Island.

I’d make this point, and it’s an important one to make, that the monsoon season doesn’t end until traditionally the end of April. Whilst a fortnight ago we saw some terrible weather conditions, sea states four, five and above, weather conditions in the last two weeks have been much calmer, there is the potential for sea states to return and get much more dangerous in the weeks ahead.

QUESTION: Does this show that your no advantage policy isn’t working? This surge that we’re seeing?

JASON CLARE: Well, I’m going to resist the temptation, as I have in the past, to get into the politics and the policy in this area. I deliberately, when people have died, and people have died today, resist the temptation to talk about the politics of this. My position on this is well-known. The Government’s decision is well-known but today is not the day to go into that.

QUESTION: Are the two injured passengers being treated on the Australian mainland or in prison [indistinct] and secondly are the other prisoners [indistinct] asylum as well?

JASON CLARE: The two individuals that are injured are still on Ocean Protector where they’re receiving medical care, and the same rules that apply to everybody that arrives to Australia by sea after 13 August of last year apply in this case as well.

QUESTION: What is the nationality of those who are onboard?

DAVID JOHNSTON: I think the Commander answered that. The initial advise, again initial advice because this is hours old, is that the people are Afghans as well as potentially from other Middle-Eastern countries, potentially Iran.

QUESTION: Given the sea state was it safe for Customs to – was it advisable for Customs to board that vessel?

DAVID JOHNSTON: The sea conditions are certainly within our ability to manage safely. So, yes, we’re quite competent and able to board a vessel in that sea condition.

QUESTION: Was it, sort of, a freak wave or?

DAVID JOHNSTON: I don’t know. That’s possibly the case but we’re not yet certain.

QUESTION: And just on the – is there still an operation going on at the moment to see if there’s anymore bodies or anymore survivors and how long is that likely to continue?

DAVID JOHNSTON: That will be a matter for the rescue coordination centre to determine but we certainly still have assets in the area searching.

QUESTION: Did the crew board the asylum-seeker boat because it was daylight or because they were concerned about the conditions that potentially could end as it has.

DAVID JOHNSTON: They boarded at that time because it was daylight, so it was safer to do so, and we were following the NOW protocols for vessels that entre the migration zone, were inside the contiguous zone, in our terms, and going through a migration act boarding.

QUESTION: Sorry, just to clarify, Minister, are you actually still searching for people from this boat who you believe may be missing or do you think you’ve got everybody?

DAVID JOHNSTON: That again – that’s a decision for the Rescue Coordination Centre. We believe we have everybody but as a prudent act there was an ongoing search to confirm that was the case.

QUESTION: Have any crew members been apprehended?

DAVID JOHNSTON: We believe there were three Indonesians have been identified, whether they’re crew or not is still yet to be determined.

QUESTION: At 3 o’clock in the morning when you first detected the vessel, you said at the time the vessel didn’t appear to be in distress. If it was dark how was that apparent? Was there lights shone on it or something?

DAVID JOHNSTON: We had some imagery or photographs of the vessel from when the aircraft saw it the afternoon before. It remained underway and we have some night vision capability to determine that the vessel was moving and appeared sea worthy.

QUESTION: It’s been suggested that a number of other boats are actually heading this way or heading toward Christmas Island. Do you have any idea how many or how many people might be queued up to come?

JASON CLARE: I think the general point I’d make there is when a vessel is detected, either through one of our aircraft or through our vessels, that information is provided to me and through my office a statement is issued once that vessel is intercepted, and when that occurs I’ll provide that information to you.

QUESTION: We’ve hear that there are a number of boats on the sea at the moment. Would that be right?

JASON CLARE: Well, it is very important here that the information that I provide you with is correct, and as you know, I go out of my way to make sure that I give you correct and accurate information to the best of my ability. The best way to do that is when a boat is intercepted and I collect the relevant information from Customs and Border Protection then I’m in a position to provide it to you.

QUESTION: Can I just ask, have you seen any vision or footage of the state of the boat after it was [indistinct] by the waves. Did it smash in half or did it just overturn?

DAVID JOHNSTON: I have seen some footage or a photograph of it. The boat appears to have just settled down in the water so we can see the top of it and the shape of the hull through there, so it appears to be largely upright but full of water.

QUESTION: Minister, you said that monsoon season hasn’t ended. There’s – the people smugglers are obviously pushing a lot of boats through at the moment. There’s a lot of people on these boats. Some of these boats – I think it was 128 on a boat that arrived on Saturday. Is there something that has changed that to your understanding at the moment, in the way that the people smuggling – cartels are operating in terms of the way they are pushing people through at this time of the year and the size of the boats?

JASON CLARE: Nothing that I’ve been particularly briefed on other than that the weather has improved over the course of the last fortnight that’s provided an opportunity for the people who peddle in this evil trade to put people on boats and send them to Christmas Island.

QUESTION: Minister, will you be organising for the release of any of this imagery?

JASON CLARE: Well, this is a decision that’s not made by me. It’s not appropriate that it be made by me. That’s a decision that will be made by Border Protection Command. Okay, just one more question.

QUESTION: Is there anything – you know how you said part of the reason that the boat tipped over was because it was stationary, is that the usual – is there any sort of protocols that you follow to keep the boat moving sometimes. You know, was that a risk that could have been foreseen or was it just a freak?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Unknown. It’s difficult for us, of course, to control a vessel when we’re not onboard it. So if it was stationary and in the process of our officers boarding,

that’s when it occurred, then we have little control over it in that circumstance.

QUESTION: Could the arrival of the Customs boat cause the waves?

DAVID JOHNSTON: No, I don’t believe so. The main ship, the Ocean Protector, was about 300 metres away, so it was a good distance off the vessel.

QUESTION: What about the other ones?

JASON CLARE: These are relatively small rigid boats. Smaller than the vessel in question.

QUESTION: [inaudible question]

DAVID JOHNSTON: The sea state – one to perhaps two and a half metres. Enough that can be very localised in terms of the sea condition itself.

JASON CLARE: Alright. Thanks very much. Thanks everyone.