Topics: Search and Rescue Operation
JON FAINE:Jason Clare is the Minister for Home Affairs in the Gillard Government. There is a rescue mission still underway with so far three confirmed dead and an unknown number of people missing north of Christmas Island.
Mr Clare, good morning to you.
JASON CLARE: Good morning Jon.
JON FAINE: How many people have been saved?
JASON CLARE: One-hundred-and-ten so far. We plucked one-hundred-and-ten survivors out of the water yesterday afternoon and unfortunately three deceased adult men as well. The suggestions are from people on the boat that there were approximately two-hundred people on this boat, so grave fears are held for the rest.
JON FAINE: How much hope is there still for survivors?
JASON CLARE: Well we’re still in that critical thirty-six hour window from when the capsized boat came to our attention, and that’s a critical period where we could potentially save more lives. The advice that I’ve got from Border Protection Command is that the water temperature is about twenty-nine degrees, and the sea’s a bit rough, it’s sea state three. But if people either have life jackets or are holding onto debris they can potentially survive in that water for up to thirty-six hours.
JON FAINE: Are the Indonesians also helping rescue people?
JASON CLARE: We’re in close liaison with the Indonesian search and rescue authority, Basarnas, but the lead has now been taken by the Australians.
JON FAINE: Why?
JASON CLARE: We have…
JON FAINE: It’s Indonesian waters.
JASON CLARE: Well, I guess based on the capacity to save lives. We have our patrol boats there, and we’ve got aerial surveillance that can provide support. In addition to what the Australian Government is able to provide, there are commercial vessels in the area that are also supporting.
Let me give you a little bit more information about what’s happening right now. HMAS Larrakia is on site. The other patrol boat is now back at Christmas Island where it’s transferring the people that we rescued last night onto the island. Once it’s done that, it will immediately return back to the search and rescue area which is about half way between Christmas Island and Indonesia.
There’s four merchant vessels that are on their way to the search and rescue area, another three merchant vessels that collected survivors are on their way to Christmas Island, and around about now the first of the aerial surveillance planes will be over the search and rescue area. The sun’s come up recently over that area in the desperate search for more survivors.
JON FAINE: There have been conflicting reports on where these people have come from. Are they Sri Lankan or Middle Eastern or Pakistani or Afghani? Where are they from?
JASON CLARE: The advice that I’ve received from Border Protection Command is that these are Afghans.
JON FAINE: All of them?
JASON CLARE: Yes. Now obviously Jon, when you get information in a situation like this, information can change. But the best information before me at the moment is that there were approximately two-hundred people on the boat, that they were all male, that one of the survivors that was plucked out of the water last night was a thirteen-year-old boy. Other than that, the people that have been rescued were all adults. And the best information I have at the moment is that they were Afghans, but I caveat that information by saying that in situations like these information can change.
JON FAINE: I thought measures had been put in place with the Indonesian authorities to try and cut off boats from departing. It’s hard for two-hundred Afghans to get on a boat in Sumatra or Java and head off without people noticing.
JASON CLARE: Well I think that’s a point well made. The fact is they did. A phone call was made to Australian authorities at 10:00pm on Tuesday night to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority that said that the boat was experiencing difficulties. In that phone call they didn’t tell Australian authorities where they were located, but we received a follow up phone call a bit over three hours later, at 1:30am on Wednesday morning…
JON FAINE: From a satellite phone?
JASON CLARE: Yes, indeed, receiving information that the vessel was still experiencing difficulties and that it was thirty-eight nautical miles south of Indonesia. At that time I’m advised that the AMSA official told the people on the boat to return to Indonesia…
JON FAINE: That would have been – then the first time they rang, they would have been well within reach of returning to Indonesia…
JASON CLARE: That’s correct.
JON FAINE: …and chose to go on regardless.
JASON CLARE: That’s correct, and as we’ve seen over the last few hours, the consequences of that have been tragic.
JON FAINE: When they’re rescued at sea, why not return them to Indonesia rather than give them their ultimate prize and intent and in effect therefore fulfil the charter of the people smugglers of getting them into Christmas Island? Because that’s what drives this miserable tragic traffic.
JASON CLARE: Well what drives me, what I’m sure is driving the men and women that are on these patrol boats and in these merchant vessels, is to save as many lives as we possibly can. The best way to do that, the quickest way to do that…
JON FAINE: Yes, but once they’re…
JASON CLARE: Jon the quickest way…
JON FAINE: Once they’re on the ship or once they’re rescued, to take them to Christmas Island means that other people smugglers’ business plan, if you can call it that, is reinforced and others will try too. If they’re returned to Indonesia, then you may frustrate the business plan.
JASON CLARE: Well by returning them to Christmas Island, it means…
JON FAINE: They’re not returning, they’re making it to Christmas Island.
JASON CLARE: Sorry, let me clarify that. By taking the people that were plucked out of the water to Christmas Island means that HMAS Wollongong can now go back to the search and rescue area and continue the search for more survivors. That is the priority, saving lives.
JON FAINE: But it’s close – is it not closer to Indonesia?
JASON CLARE: No, it’s not.
JON FAINE: Okay.
JASON CLARE: Just so that we understand, this is about half way between Christmas Island and Indonesia. It’s one-hundred-and-ten nautical miles north of Christmas Island, about one-hundred-and-nine nautical miles south of Indonesia. The Indonesian search and rescue area goes down as far as Christmas Island, so that explains why it’s in that search and rescue area.
JON FAINE: It’s all about human beings and it’s so tragic, so incredibly tragic. Look, thank you very much and through you, to all the people who are coordinating their efforts to try and save lives, but ultimately we have to look at prevention, not just picking up the pieces afterwards. Thank you for your time.
JASON CLARE: Not at all, thanks Jon.
JON FAINE: Jason Clare, Minister for Home Affairs in the Gillard Government.