Topics: Search and Rescue Operation
STUART BOCKING: As we told you earlier on, remarkably, a thirteen year old boy among the survivors of this asylum seeker boat which has capsized about two hundred kilometres nor-west of Christmas Island.
The Home Affairs Minister is Jason Clare. I’m pleased to say he’s been good enough to join us.
Minister, good morning.
JASON CLARE: Morning Stuart.
STUART BOCKING: Thank you, Jason, for your time. First and foremost we have confirmed that there are a hundred-and-ten survivors. How many people are confirmed dead?
JASON CLARE: Confirmed dead this morning, at the moment, is three. We’ve plucked three deceased adult men out of the water overnight.
As you would expect, our men and women last night were focusing on getting survivors out of the water. I’m told by Border Protection Command that they did see other dead bodies in the water. The focus at the moment is still trying to find more survivors.
The fact that there were about two hundred people on this boat tells us that we need to prepare ourselves for bad information, that there are a lot more people dead than just three.
STUART BOCKING: Are there suggestions the boat may have been overloaded? Had there been warnings from Indonesia about this boat continuing on its voyage?
JASON CLARE: There weren’t warnings from Indonesia about the boat continuing on its voyage. What there was, was a phone call from the boat to Australia’s Maritime Safety Authority at ten o’clock on Tuesday night, saying that the boat was experiencing difficulties.
It didn’t tell us then where the boat was located, but a bit over three hours later – at 1:30am on Wednesday morning – they rang back and said they were continuing to experience difficulties, and said that they were thirty-eight nautical miles south of Indonesia at that time. At that time, I’m advised, the Australian officials told the people on the boat to return back to Indonesia.
STUART BOCKING: It’s interesting you talk about them phoning Australian Maritime Safety Authority. I have to say here I am in Australia. If I was told to ring AMSA right now I wouldn’t have a clue what the phone number is. Nor would I necessary able to ring it from somewhere out in the middle of the ocean. Does it highlight how organised this whole operation is; that, seemingly, they’ve got these numbers almost on speed dial, Jason?
JASON CLARE: Well, this is organised people smuggling, people smugglers putting people on boats with the real risk that they never get to Australia. That they end up at the bottom of the Java Sea. We’ve seen that too many times over the last few months.
We saw the terrible tragedy in December, where over two hundred people drowned. Eleven people drowned off the coast of Malaysia in February. We need to brace ourselves now for the news that there are a lot more people that have drowned over the last twenty-four hours.
STUART BOCKING: We hear a lot from refugee advocates and various others that the system is too tough, that it’s unfair, blah, blah, blah. Despite that, the boats continue to come. And, as we’ve seen so far this year, basically, as many already this year as came for the entire of 2011.
How on earth do we stop it? Is it simply a function of what is going on in places like Sri Lanka, Afghanistan? Has the sign gone up that yes, we are just too soft; it’s open slather, away you go?
JASON CLARE: Well look, Stuart, I’m not going to go there today. My focus is on the rescue effort. I’m trying to save people’s lives. There are still people out there in the water. We’ve got our patrol boat still out there on the scene. HMAS Wollongong, the other patrol boat, is dropping off rescued passengers right now at Christmas Island, and then will turn back and head back to the search and rescue area.
We’ve got four merchant vessels that are on their way to the scene right now. And I’m advised that one of our planes will be overhead in the course of the next fifteen minutes to continue the search.
There is a massive search going on at the moment to try and find more people alive. That critical window of thirty-six hours after a boat capsizes is still open. The water, I’m told, is about twenty-nine degrees centigrade. The sea state is rough – sea state three – but people can survive if they’re holding on to debris. And that’s where my focus is today.
There’ll be a debate about this, that’s for certain, but that debate shouldn’t be happening today when there are still people that we could potentially pluck out of the sea.
STUART BOCKING: Tell me, for those who have been rescued, obviously, this is still in the Indonesian search area. Is there a reason why they go to Christmas Island rather than to somewhere in Indonesia when, seemingly, that is closer?
JASON CLARE: Well, I’m not sure. You made the point that we told the people on the vessel to turn back from Indonesia when they were only thirty-eight nautical miles from the coast of Indonesia. This search and rescue that’s happening right now is right in the middle, between Christmas Island and Indonesia.
It’s a hundred-and-ten nautical miles north of Christmas Island and about a hundred-and-nine nautical miles south of Indonesia. The people on the boat made the decision to keep travelling south, and it seems that was a tragic decision to make.
STUART BOCKING: Do we know if there were sufficient life rafts on board? Obviously many of those who have been picked up were clinging to either debris or life jackets. Do we know, at this stage, any sort of idea as to whether there were enough on board or not?
JASON CLARE: No, we don’t know. We know that the individuals that were spotted on the top of the upside down turned boat had life jackets on. I was at the Border Protection Command Operation Centre last night, observing the work our officials were doing on this search and rescue, and we saw photographs from the Dash 8 aircraft overhead that showed people in these orange vests.
They did have vests, but I can’t tell you whether everyone did. We also saw evidence of people with life jackets on in the ocean and holding on to debris as far away as three nautical miles away from the upturned hull of the capsized vessel.
STUART BOCKING: Goodness me. There were also reports earlier, Jason, of, potentially, a second boat which had gone missing. I believe we have confirmed that’s not right.
JASON CLARE: That’s right. The latest information I’ve got is that a boat that we thought was in distress off the coast of East Timor that had triggered its emergency beacon is not in distress. Last night we sent out a Dash 8 to that area as well, and identified that there were no obvious signs of distress there, so that emergency has been called off.
STUART BOCKING: But is that another vessel headed our way?
JASON CLARE: No, the information I have is that that’s not the case.
STUART BOCKING: Obviously, a busy time for you. I know you’ve got a lot on your plate this morning. And I do appreciate some of your time. Thank you.
JASON CLARE: Not at all. Thanks,
STUART BOCKING: Thank you very much, Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare.
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