Press Conference – Sydney

Topics: Search and rescue off Indonesian coast, Australian fatalities in Afghanistan

JASON CLARE: Good morning everyone. I have just been briefed by the head of Border Protection Command, Rear Admiral David Johnston. I can provide you with the latest information.

This information, as you know, is always subject to change, and more information will be available throughout the course of the day. But this is the latest information. Right now a major search and rescue effort is underway, forty-five nautical miles off the coast of Indonesia. The search and rescue effort is being led by the Indonesian search and rescue authority, BASARNAS, with the assistance and the support of Australia’s Rescue Coordination Centre which is part of AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Three merchant vessels are currently on scene. They are APL Bahrain, MV Gwendoline and MV Forever South West. The master of MV Bahrain has reported that he has recovered six survivors. A fourth merchant vessel, MV Chemroute, is also responding to the request for assistance. A Defence P3 aircraft is expected to be over the search and rescue area in about one hour’s time.

Two Indonesian search vessels are heading towards the area. They are expected to arrive at three o’clock this afternoon, Eastern Standard Time. HMAS Maitland has also been tasked to assist, and it will arrive on the scene at approximately four o’clock Eastern Standard Time.

Let me now go through a chronology of events starting early yesterday morning. At 4:20 am and at 5:05 am yesterday RCC Australia received two phone calls from a person on board a vessel requesting assistance. In the second phone call the person provided RCC with the vessel’s location, approximately eight nautical miles south-west of Java. They also reported that there were one-hundred-and-fifty people on board including women and children, and they said that the vessel had engine failure and it was taking on water.

RCC Australia alerted BASARNAS to the possible search and rescue incident, and BASARNAS assumed coordination for the response. RCC Australia then issued a broadcast to merchant vessels in the area on behalf of BASARNAS and offered further assistance if it was required. BASARNAS informed RCC Australia that they had tasked two rescue vessels and two helicopters to search the area.

The first helicopter arrived in the area at mid-afternoon yesterday Eastern Standard Time. At approximately four o’clock Eastern Standard Time yesterday RCC Australia received a fax from BASARNAS indicating that the helicopter had searched the location and hadn’t found any signs of the vessels, hadn’t found any signs of distress. The fax also indicated that all other assets had been released from Tasking.

A Customs and Border Protection Dash 8 departed Christmas Island at approximately four o’clock Eastern Standard Time yesterday to conduct routine surveillance. The Dash 8 searched the area north of Christmas Island, and searched an area where it was calculated that a vessel might be if it had continued to motor or drift towards Christmas Island.

During this surveillance, AMSA obtained updated vessel location using commercially available satellite telephone positioning data. RCC requested Border Protection Command to release the Dash 8 to search this new potential area. By this stage the Dash 8 was low on fuel, and had very limited capacity for ongoing search and rescue activity. The Dash 8 returned to Christmas Island. Due to fuel, weather and crew duty limitations it was unable to relaunch last night to support that request.

RCC Australia also provided BASARNAS with updated information based on drift modelling for the vessel yesterday afternoon, and tasked the merchant vessel that I’ve referred to earlier, APL Bahrain, to respond to this broadcast, to respond to the potential area where the vessel might now be, based on that drift modelling analysis, and head to that new area.

The merchant vessel Bahrain headed to that area and arrived in that area at nine o’clock last night. It searched throughout the night, and at 3:30 this morning sighted people in the water. As I’ve said, the latest advice is that APL Bahrain has recovered six people from the water, but there are grave fears for a lot more. The advice that we have is that there were up to one-hundred-and-fifty people that were aboard this vessel.

Six have been plucked from the sea. We have grave fears for a lot more. There is a massive search and rescue effort going on right now just off the coast of Indonesia. It involves up to seven vessels and one Air Force aircraft. The search and rescue effort is being led by the Indonesian search and rescue authority BASARNAS, but we are providing every assistance we can.

That’s the latest information that I have. Very happy to take your questions.

REPORTER: Is the Federal Government happy or satisfied, rather, with the way that Indonesian authorities handled the situation?

JASON CLARE: Let’s remember just how difficult this task is. This is a big stretch of water. Search and rescue is very hard. It’s very hard to find people that are in distress on a little wooden boat in the middle of the Sunda Strait, or anywhere between Christmas Island and the coast of Indonesia. The Indonesian authorities deployed assets to try to find these people.

We’ve worked very closely with Indonesian authorities to try and find these people as well. You do this by working together, and by using the information that we had to help identify where this vessel might be. We’ve been able to find the vessel, but it’s a matter of working together and we do this with the Indonesian search and rescue authority all the time.

REPORTER: Minister, what do you know of why the Indonesians did stop searching so early on?

JASON CLARE: I wouldn’t use the term, so early on. The Indonesians deployed two helicopters and two vessels. They searched over that search and rescue area where the phone call indicated the vessel in distress might be. I think they did that for quite a considerable period of time. The Indonesians led the search and rescue effort, searched the area, tried to find people, but couldn’t do it.

Don’t underestimate how difficult this task is. Don’t underestimate how big the sea that we’re searching is. When people get on a boat that’s leaking, where the engine doesn’t work, and water is coming on board it’s very, very dangerous, and finding people in the middle of the sea is very, very hard. Indonesian authorities worked very hard yesterday to find these people. We’re working hard right now to save as many people as we can, and we’re doing that with Indonesian authorities right now.

REPORTER: The crucial hours were lost, weren’t they?

JASON CLARE: I wouldn’t say that. From the time that we received a phone call with a location Australian authorities and Indonesian authorities have been working as hard as they possibly can to find these people. Don’t underestimate how hard it is to find people in the middle of the sea. It’s very, very hard , and the authorities have been working since the time they got the original information early yesterday morning.

REPORTER: Do you know where the asylum seekers are from originally?

JASON CLARE: We don’t have confirmed information about that at the moment. We’ll be able to get more information from the survivors who are now on the merchant vessel throughout the course of the day, so I’ll wait until I’ve got confirmed information before I pass that on.

REPORTER: And Minister, do you know how many children are actually on board?

JASON CLARE: We don’t have confirmed details of that. When the phone call was made yesterday morning the person on the boat indicated there were about one-hundred-and-fifty people on board, and that included women and children, but we don’t have the details at this time about how many women and how many children.

REPORTER: Minister, do you know where the asylum seekers will be taken?

JASON CLARE: Given that this is so close to Indonesia it’s my expectation that the survivors will be taken to Indonesia.

REPORTER: And the six survivors, can you tell us what condition they’re in?

JASON CLARE: No, it’s too early. Just remember the sun is just coming up off the coast of Indonesia right now. They’ve been plucked out of the ocean in the middle of the night. We’ll get more information from the master of the vessel through the course of the day. You can expect that they’ve suffered an incredible trauma. Six people have survived. Potentially dozens and dozens of people haven’t.

REPORTER: Men, women and children, what is the make-up of the six survivors currently on the Bahrain?

JASON CLARE: My understanding – and this information has not been confirmed yet – is that they are all men.

REPORTER: And how long will Australia be assisting with the search operation?

JASON CLARE: Well, we’re under the direction at the moment of BASARNAS, which is leading the search and rescue effort. We’ll provide all the assistance that’s required of us. I expect that Australians will do what we’ll always do, which is search to find life while ever we think the chance of people being alive exists.

REPORTER: Minister, obviously this boat only left Indonesia or wherever it came from relatively recently. How long do you expect it to take for the policy shift to off-shore processing to work to deter people smugglers?

JASON CLARE: Let there be no mistake about this – people smugglers are trying to get people onto boats. They’re trying to push as many people onto boats as they can. We’ve seen evidence of that over the course of the last few weeks. They want to make as much money out of this as they possibly can. Remember they make as much as a million dollars out of every boat that they set to sea, and they’re lying to people. They’re telling people they’re selling them a ticket to Australia – what they’re really doing is selling them a ticket to Nauru, or a ticket to the bottom of the sea.

I expect people smugglers to keep trying to keep trying to put people onto boats. The real risk here is that people never make it to Australia, they end up dying trying to get to Australia. We’ve seen too much evidence of that in last few months. More than three hundred people have died in the last three months, and it appears more people have died in the last twenty-four hours.

REPORTER: So then the policy shift – it follows that the policy shift is ineffective as long as people smugglers continue to lie to their customers?

JASON CLARE: No, I didn’t say that. There are eighty-five Australian defence personnel on the ground in Nauru right now. They’ll be one-hundred-and-fifty Australian defence personnel on the ground by then end of the day. We’re setting up that facility right now. We want it in place as soon as possible. We need to implement all of the recommendations of the Houston report as soon as possible, and that is just one of them, but it’s a very important one. That’s why we’re working as quickly as we possibly can to set up the off-shore processing facility in Nauru.

REPORTER: So are you concerned that the message isn’t getting through to asylum seekers, to the people it needs to get through to?

JASON CLARE: I would expect that people smugglers will try and get people onto boats. Remember, there are a lot of people who have paid half their money already. They’ve paid half the money for the trip before they get on the boat, and sometimes pay half of it when they arrive in Australia. This is a ten thousand dollar ticket to Australia. For a lot of people that have set off from their country of origin and in Indonesia now, there are some that will try their luck.

My message is, don’t get on the boat. Don’t get on the boat because what we’ve seen today is that there is a real risk that people will die, that people will end up at the bottom of the sea.

REPORTER: Are you concerned this is a last minute rush?

JASON CLARE: I’ve been saying now for about six months that people smugglers are running a closing down sale. They’re telling people, get on the boat before there’s no more chance to come to Australia. That’s been happening now for a number of months. I think the legislation that’s passed through the parliament to set up off-shore processing only encourages people smugglers to try and get people onto boats as quickly as they can because they know that setting up off-shore processing in Nauru, in Manus Island, and potentially the implementation of all of the recommendations of the Houston expert report will shut down their business model.

REPORTER: So what’s Nauru [unclear] the boat people expected to slow down the boats?

JASON CLARE: It’s an important part of it. It’s a very important part of it, but as I said earlier we need to implement all the recommendations of the Houston report.

REPORTER: When is Nauru going to open?

JASON CLARE: I’ll refer you to the comments that Minister Bowen last week. He said he expects to have a facility for up to five hundred people by the end of September.

REPORTER: Minister, on another issue, the ADF has just confirmed that three Australians have been killed in Afghanistan, [unclear] country.

JASON CLARE: I understand that the Australian Defence Force has issued a statement only moments ago. There are certain protocols in place that need to be followed, and fully implemented over the course of the next few hours. It’s important that I adhere to those protocols, so I won’t be making any further comment at this moment, but other than to say that Vice-Chief of the Defence Force will be making a statement a little later today.

REPORTER: Minister, just back to the search, has there been any sighting of any bodies?

JASON CLARE: Nothing confirmed. As I said earlier, information changes. We get more information by the minute. I am not in a position at the moment to confirm that there have been bodies identified in the water, but just make the general point the expectation is there are one-hundred-and-fifty people on this boat, six people have been plucked from the sea, we hold grave fears for many more.

REPORTER: What would be the role of HMAS Maitland?

JASON CLARE: Its role is to look for survivors, to try and pluck as many people from the sea as we can. We have a window of opportunity – people can survive in the sea for up to thirty-six, maybe forty-eight hours. That’s why so many vessels, merchant vessels, Indonesian vessels, and Australian vessels are heading to the scene to try and rescue as many people as we can, to try and save as many lives as we can.

Thanks very much.

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