Joint Press Conference – Adelaide

Topic: Asylum Seeker vessel

JASON CLARE: Thank you for coming along. First, let me give you an update on the search and rescue effort on the coast on Indonesia.

Australian men and woman have come to the rescue again, after we received a call for assistance from a vessel fifty nautical miles off the coast of Indonesia.

At about 4.30 this morning the Australian Maritime Safety Authority received a call from a vessel in distress off the coast of Indonesia, fifty nautical miles off the coast of Indonesia.

At that time the Australian Maritime Safety Authority sent out a broadcast seeking assistance from merchant vessels in the area. They also advised the vessel at that time to head towards the nearest land.

The Indonesian search and rescue authority sent out a similar broadcast, to vessels in the area asking them to assist.

I can report that over the course of the last few hours the Indonesian search and rescue and Australian search and rescue authorities have been working very closely together, including I understand a number of teleconferences that have been held.

Initial advice that we received this morning was that the vessel had heeded that advice, and was headed back towards Indonesia. That has proven through the course of the day to not be correct. HMAS Wollongong, one of our patrol boats, was on route from Singapore, back to Christmas Island, entered the search and rescue area at about ten am this morning, where it located the vessel fifty-two nautical miles south of Indonesia. At that time it found that the vessel was intact and was moving very slowly south. It found that there were no visible signs of distress, but I do need to emphasise this: weather conditions out there at the moment are very rough. The advice from the captain of HMAS Wollongong is that it is sea state six. It means it is very rough. It means it is too rough at the moment for the Australian personnel to board the vessel.

When the weather improves the intention of the captain of HMAS Wollongong is to board the vessel, where they can then can then talk to the master of the ship, and see what type of distress the ship, or the boat is under.

I can also advise that we have an Australian P-3 Orion aircraft overhead, the Indonesians have a Hercules aircraft which has been deployed, which has flown over the search and rescue area. HMAS Leeuwin, another of our Navy ships is on its way to the area, and will get to the area around about dusk tonight, and I’m also advised by Indonesian authorities that Indonesian naval vessels have been made available if necessary as well.

So the search and rescue effort continues, the good news is that the vessel appears to be upright, and in a stable condition, but the weather conditions are very rough, and Australian men and women are on the scene to conduct a rescue if necessary.

Now, I’m very happy to take some questions on that, and then we’ll move on to a defence announcement and a health announcement.

QUESTION: Is the weather likely to improve? Have you got any advice on that?

JASON CLARE: Not at the moment. Weather conditions are very rough. The advice from the captain is they’re hoping they may be able to board the vessel later today, when HMAS Leeuwin arrives, that will be around about dusk.

Those decisions will be made based on the condition of the vessel. Obviously if the vessel is in a position to capsize action would be taken immediately to rescue people if people go into the water.

QUESTION: Minister, have you got an indication as yet – I know said it’s not clear yet – but do we know why the distress signal was activated yet?

JASON CLARE: The advice from the Maritime Safety Authority is that we received a phone call from a satellite phone on the boat saying that the vessel was taking on water. That’s not surprising in conditions like sea state six. Very rough weather, water coming on board, waves crashing into the boat – you can imagine the terror of the people on the boat with the boat taking on water.

That’s the initial advice we’ve got, but we’ll have better information once the naval personnel have been able to board the vessel.

QUESTION: Where is it now?

JASON CLARE: The latest advice I’ve got is that it’s fifty-two nautical miles south of Indonesia.

QUESTION: Once the navy manages to board the boat and conditions to quieten down, where can we expect the boat to be taken to? Are we going to see it taken back to Indonesia or brought here…

JASON CLARE: No decision has been made on that at the moment and that decision will be made by the captain of HMAS Wollongong. It’s a decision that’s made by the experts on the scene, by the operational experts. It’s not the sort of decision that should be made by politicians.

QUESTION: Any intervention then would be on the basis of rescue? That would be the places of that intervention by Australian maritime and naval authorities would be for rescue purposes only at this stage.

JASON CLARE: That’s right. Well, it’d be based on what we see when the boarding party arrives and goes on the ship to see what condition the ship is in, what condition the individuals are in, and what action should be taken. The action that’s taken is based on the experts at sea deciding what is necessary to save lives. Just one question here.

QUESTION: So towing the boat back to Indonesia, that hasn’t been ruled out?

JASON CLARE: The decisions about what happens to the people on the boat, what happens to the vessel, are made by the Australian navy personnel led by the captain of HMAS Wollongong out there at sea. They’re the people who should make these decisions, not politicians back here in Adelaide or anywhere else across the country.

QUESTION: Do you know what the make-up of the people on board, women and children, are like?

JASON CLARE: I don’t have that information at the moment. The latest advice I’ve got is that somewhere between one hundred and thirty and one hundred and eighty people are on board.

QUESTION: Has this been an unprecedented level of combined relationship and combining of resources in this rescue between both the Australian and the Indonesian navy?

JASON CLARE: Australian authorities and Indonesian authorities work very closely together. The Australian Federal Police and the Indonesian National Police work very closely together. That work has resulted in about three hundred boats being disrupted over the last few years, and the arrest of a suspected people smuggler just in the last few days. Our customs and border protection officials work closely together, so do our navy officials, but as I said this morning, our search and rescue authorities, AMSA and Basarnas, can work more closely together.

That was a discussion that we had with the Indonesian President yesterday, and as a result of that our officials will be working over the next few weeks on a plan to greater integrate the work that we do. I’ll be heading to Indonesia with the Defence Minister, Minister Smith, in late August, early September to look at ways that we can continue to bring those two organisations closer. It may involve liaison officers, expert advice being exchanged by individuals across the two organisations, linking the computer systems so that there’s a faster transfer of information and providing the Indonesian officials with more information about merchant vessels that are in areas where distress signals come from.

QUESTION: Are you concerned that the smugglers are using this as a strategy whereby they can send a boat out that might not make the distance but see the Australian authorities as a taxi service to Christmas Island?

JASON CLARE: I’m concerned about any event where there is a risk of life at sea. In the last twelve months we’ve seen more than three hundred people drown. We saw two hundred people drown in December. We saw ninety people drown two weeks ago. Only last week, we saw another four people drown. That’s what concerns me, – stopping people dying at sea.

FEQUESTION: Can you tell us what’s happening on Christmas Island? It’s understood there’s another people smuggler there. Do you know what’s happening with that investigation?

JASON CLARE: I can give you a bit of information on that. The Indonesian National Police arrested a person they suspect of being a key member of the syndicate that put that boat to sea a couple of weeks ago that led to the death of ninety people. The Australian Federal Police are interviewing one individual at Christmas Island that they believe may have been involved in that syndicate. Both police forces, the Australian Federal Police and the Indonesian National Police, are working closely on identifying and targeting other key organisers that are part of that syndicate that resulted in the death only a few weeks ago of another ninety people at sea.

QUESTION: What nationality is the person being interviewed?

JASON CLARE: I don’t have exact details. There was a reference to that in the newspaper today but I haven’t been given further details or particulars by the Federal Police, so I don’t want to comment on that in case I give you the wrong information.

QUESTION: Going back to this boat, I’ll just reiterate my question if required, is there a belief or are you in any way concerned that there is a change in strategy, that Australian ships are being seen as a taxi service?

JASON CLARE: I think people smugglers put people to sea after they take their money and they tell people, ring Australia, and expect that vessels will come to meet them. Sometimes it’s a false alarm. Sometimes it’s the real thing. We treat every single phone call seriously, because if you don’t, people die. That’s the approach that Australia always takes. It’s why we’ve got Australian men and women out there right now rescuing people, making sure that people are safe, not at the bottom of the Java Sea.

QUESTION: How much of a strain on resources is that strategy whereby every distress call is…

JASON CLARE: What this means is that we’ve got something in the order of, I think, about seventeen aircraft, about eighteen vessels, two hundred border protection and navy personnel, about a hundred Australian Federal Police that are dedicated to the task of arresting people smugglers as well as intercepting vessels. We are throwing everything at this.

The more general point I would make is this. The way to stop this is to stop people from handing over ten thousand dollars. Remove the incentive for people to get on a boat in the first place. That’s the way to stop people dying at sea. That’s why the Government so strongly seeks the support of the Federal Parliament to pass legislation to do that.