Interview with Chris Uhlmann 730 – 21 June 2012

Topics:  Search and rescue operation

 CHRIS UHLMANN: The images are seared on the nation’s consciousness.  In December 2010, an asylum seeker boat was dashed on the rocks of Christmas Island.  As many as fifty people drowned.

Usually we don’t get to see this.  When asylum boats go down, it’s far from shore, far from help.  Like yesterday when a boat carrying more than two-hundred asylum seekers overturned in heavy seas two-hundred kilometres northwest of Christmas Island, in international waters designated as Indonesia’s search and rescue zone. An Australian border protection plane spotted the upturned hull in the early afternoon.

A RAAF plane was sent to drop life rafts, two patrol boats steamed to the scene and four merchant ships in the area were called to assist.  By evening, a Liberian flagged cargo ship was on site and began plucking survivors from the South East Asia.  And, early this morning, HMAS Wollongong was delivering them to Christmas Island.

JASON CLARE: The latest information is that one-hundred-and-nine people have been rescued.  Those people are either back now at Christmas Island or the rest of them will be back at Christmas Island later this evening.

We’ve got planes in the air right now.  What they’re telling us is they’re still seeing debris out there and life jackets in the water and unfortunately more dead bodies.  The bad news is that throughout the course of the day, unfortunately our search and rescue team haven’t found any more survivors as yet.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Do you have any count on the number of dead and the number that can be seen in the water?

JASON CLARE: Well, they’re seeing a number of people in the water.  The reports that we’re getting back from Christmas Island are that there were about two-hundred people on this vessel. So we’ve rescued one-hundred-and-nine so that tells us that there are dozens and dozens of people that have potentially perished.

We’re now getting towards the end of that thirty-six hour window where there’s a chance of finding people still alive, so as every hour passes the news gets more grim.

CHRIS UHLMANN: So how long will the search continue?

JASON CLARE: Well, the search will continue tonight and the search will continue tomorrow.  The water is about twenty-nine degrees and I’m told that people can survive out there in a sea state like sea state three if they’ve got a life jacket or they can hold onto a bit of debris. But we’re getting past that critical period so it’s going to get harder and harder, but we’ll continue searching.

Our search and rescue teams will be out there tonight and they’ll continue over the course of tomorrow hoping against hope that they can find more people alive.

CHRIS UHLMANN: But your fear is that ninety or more people might have died?

JASON CLARE: It’s looking more and more like that.  I think we need to prepare ourselves for the fact that a lot of people have perished.

CHRIS UHLMANN: The boat’s first distress call came to the Maritime Authority late Tuesday night, but it gave no location.  In the early hours of Wednesday morning, another call came and the location was given as seventy kilometres south of the Indonesian coast.

JASON CLARE: The AMSA people on the phone then told the people on the boat to turn back and head back for Indonesia.  Unfortunately, what we know now is that they didn’t turn back and as a result, headed south towards Christmas Island and we see this unfolding tragedy that’s happening in front of us right now.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Australian officials say the boat was dangerously overcrowded, like so many now setting sail, and it’s clear that communication between Indonesian and Australian officials was confused.  Last night, the Indonesians believed two boats were in distress.

JASON CLARE: The Indonesians and Australian authorities were also talking on Sunday night about a boat.  There was a bit of confusion about whether this was the boat that has capsized.  The latest advice, Chris, I’ve got is that that’s not the case.  The boat that they were in discussions about on Sunday was a boat that arrived at Christmas Island on Wednesday of this week.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Border protection’s been the most bitterly fought battle in politics for the last three years.  Ironically, both major parties now agree that only the strong deterrent of offshore processing will stop people making the dangerous journey by sea, but they just can’t agree on how that should work.

Today, the message from both leaders was the same.  They wouldn’t have a political brawl while the rescue was underway.

– ENDS –