APOLOGY ISSUED 25 JUNE 2012
EMMA ALBERICI: Last Friday, during our interview with Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare about the asylum seeker rescue operation I confused Australian time with Coordinated Universal Time. I apologise for the error, which underpinned a number of questions.
Topic: Search and rescue operation
EMMA ALBERICI: And for more about the asylum seeker boat tragedy we were joined a short time ago by the Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare.
Jason Clare, welcome to Lateline.
JASON CLARE: Thanks, Emma.
EMMA ALBERICI: This time last night we were told 110 people had been rescued. Can you tell us have any more survivors been found since then?
JASON CLARE: The bad news is the answer to that question is no. We know that it’s now 109 people that have been rescued. They were all rescued last night on dusk, as our Armadale patrol boats got to the search and rescue area.We’ve been searching all day; we’ve had planes in the air, boats out searching as well. All we’ve found is debris. We’ve found life jackets floating out there but we haven’t found people that are alive.
We’ve seen a lot of dead bodies and the bad news I have to report to you now is that I’ve been on the phone to Border Protection Command; their advice is that they’ve now instructed the men and women out in the search and rescue area to now identify people that have been perished and retrieve those bodies.
EMMA ALBERICI: So is this still a rescue operation?
JASON CLARE: It still is. We’re now passed that key 36 hour zone when I’m told we’ve got the best chance of saving people’s lives. The water is at 29 degrees, but the sea is getting rougher. It has deteriorated over the last few hours. It is now sea state 4. There may still be people alive, but we’re passed that window.
The border protection team will keep people out there; keep planes working through the night. The planes and boats are still out there and they will continue to do that work tomorrow, but I guess I’ve got to say to you it’s looking grimmer by the hour.
EMMA ALBERICI: So when did Australian authorities first become aware of this vessel?
JASON CLARE: Ten o’clock on Tuesday night. They received a phone call. AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority received a phone call from someone on the boat at 10 o’clock. They told them that the boat was in distress, but didn’t give the geographic location of where they were.
At that time, AMSA contacted Indonesian search and rescue and told them those details and told my agency, Border Protection Command as well. About three and a half hours after that, at 1.30 in the morning on Wednesday morning they received another phone call from the people on the boat saying they were in distress, but this time telling us they were 38 nautical miles south of Indonesia, and the advice I’ve been given is that at that time they told the people on the boat to head back to head back to Indonesia.
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen through the terrible unfolding events of today, they didn’t do that, they continued to head south towards Christmas Island.
EMMA ALBERICI: But don’t we have enough federal police intelligence by now and indeed a strong relationship with the Indonesians to be able to establish exactly when boats are leaving their ports?
JASON CLARE: Well, I guess the fact of the matter is that’s when we first found out. We do work very closely with Indonesia, both in search and rescue, as well as our Customs agency and their equivalent. The Federal Police work very closely with Indonesian police as well.
EMMA ALBERICI: So you didn’t need that phone call from the boat, you knew it was out there?
JASON CLARE: No, look, it was the phone call on the boat that told us was …
EMMA ALBERICI: Was in distress?
JASON CLARE: In trouble, yes.
EMMA ALBERICI: But did you know it was there?
JASON CLARE: No, we didn’t. I guess what I’m saying is more generally is that Australian Federal Police and Indonesian police work together to try to track down people smugglers. Indonesian authorities work hard to try to stop people getting onto boats.
EMMA ALBERICI: It would be hard to evade notice if 200 people are getting on a boat in Indonesia. How do they do that surreptitiously?
JASON CLARE: It is a bigger problem than that, Emma. A lot of people don’t get to Christmas Island. In December, we had 200 people drown, 100 people got washed up onto the shores of Java, and 100 more still at the bottom of the Java sea, so this is the crux of the problem.
EMMA ALBERICI: Would it be correct to assume that a sophisticated country like Australia would have satellite surveillance capability of both legal and illegal vessel movements immediately to our north?
JASON CLARE: Well, we do and I guess the work that our authorities do, like AMSA, are able to track things like merchant vessels that are moving around. In this case, a small wooden boat, a very small wooden boat, crowded with what seems to be 200 people, left Indonesia, got into distress and contacted us at 10 o’clock on Tuesday night to tell us they were in trouble.
The real problem here is that they didn’t take what appears to be very good advice to head back north, continued to go south, for about 70 nautical miles to where the search and rescue zone is now, about halfway between Christmas Island and Indonesia.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now, Mr Clare, I have here some faxes that were sent by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority that seem to contradict your version of events. You say Australian officials first learned of the stricken vessel at 10pm on Tuesday. The time on this fax is 4pm.Can you explain the discrepancy?
JASON CLARE: I haven’t seen that document. I’m keen to look at it to see whether there was earlier information, because if there is, that’s something I want to get to the bottom of it
.EMMA ALBERICI: And can I point you to the fact that obviously that’s six hours earlier than you say you were alerted. I’ve paraphrased it here. It also says that Australia at the very beginning of that fax to Indonesia, it says, “Australia has had further contact with the vessel”, which indicates this wasn’t the first time at four o’clock, that Australia was aware that there was a vessel with 204 people in distress on Tuesday?
JASON CLARE: Yes. I guess the only advice that I can give you, Emma, is that I’ve been in constant communication with Border Protection Command about this. Yesterday when I was alerted to this I went to Border Protection Command’s operation centre and was briefed on the spot by the team there. I’ve been on the phone to them constantly throughout the day, getting written and verbal briefings. The consistent advice that I’ve received yesterday and today was at 10pm on Tuesday.
EMMA ALBERICI: Can I just get you to look at that fax, you can see quite clear there, 1600 on the Tuesday?
JASON CLARE: I absolutely don’t doubt it.
EMMA ALBERICI: What’s your reaction to that?
JASON CLARE: Well, I want to get more information to find out about that because my intention today and it’s been since 7 o’clock this morning where I brought all of this information to the people of Australia, was to make sure that all of the information that we have was brought to the attention of the people of Australia. If this is new information I want to get to the bottom of it.
EMMA ALBERICI: Actually, we’ve got other fax messages here that we’ve also been given from the Indonesian authorities. There are four of them all up. There is another one. The first two, I think you’re aware of, that are talking about a vessel back on Sunday.
JASON CLARE: Sunday, that’s right
.EMMA ALBERICI: That was in distress
JASON CLARE: Yes.
EMMA ALBERICI: In relation to all of these, before we get into the details, the Indonesian search and rescue authority said to us today that the number of passengers on board kept changing with AMSA, the Australian authorities, one minute saying it was 100, then saying 204, giving different coordinates and it was a very confusing situation. I mean, at the very least, there seems to have been some problems with communication here?
JASON CLARE: Well, these things happen. You never know entirely how many people are on these boats. I remember going through this process in December when 200 people drowned, and the information we were receiving about how many people were on that boat changed over the course of about forty eight hours. The information about how many people has survived changed. I remember reporting to the people of Australia that there were more than 80 people that had survived, and then we found out there was unfortunately not so many.
In relation to these documents, Emma, just to go into a bit of detail, at the operation centre last night we were tracking two boats, this boat that capsized halfway between Christmas Island and Indonesia, and we also had another alert last night from another boat that was sending out a distress signal off the coast of East Timor. It seems they set off an emergency beacon, we sent a Dash-8 out to track that boat . .
EMMA ALBERICI: But that was a different boat entirely to the one on Sunday?
JASON CLARE: Yes, it is. Let me get to that one as well, that appears to be a fishing vessel.
EMMA ALBERICI: Yes, sure.
JASON CLARE: On the Sunday one, this is communication between Border Protection Command and AMSA and Indonesian officials on Sunday about another boat, and there has been some confusion today about whether that boat is still out there, whether there are people still in distress.
The advice that I’ve got from Border Protection Command, and I’ve checked this throughout the day, is that this vessel arrived at Christmas Island, was intercepted by the Australian Navy on Wednesday.
EMMA ALBERICI: Intercepted in the waters or at Christmas Island?
JASON CLARE: In the waters, in the waters.
EMMA ALBERICI: While it was in distress?
JASON CLARE: No, the boat was on its way to Christmas Island and intercepted like many boats are.
EMMA ALBERICI: But this fax says the boat had been in contact with AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, to say it was in distress and taking on water. It was in trouble, it was broken down, in fact. How does it go from being broken down to arriving at Christmas Island two days later?
JASON CLARE: It’s a good question, it is a good question.
It’s not uncommon for people that are on boats with satellite phones to make contact with AMSA and tell them that they are in distress, that they need assistance, that the boat might be taking on water, and could Australian military personnel or Australian Customs personnel come to their assistance.
Whenever you get information like that you need to treat it very seriously, make sure you know where the boat is and make sure you get to it as quickly as you possibly can if you think that the threat of people dying is real.
EMMA ALBERICI: And also in one of these faxes from the rescue coordination centre in Canberra, it asks Indonesian authorities to coordinate the incident. Why?
JASON CLARE: I don’t have the details of that. It may be where the location of the boat was. I would have to go through the documents to note that.
That vessel that they were talking about on Sunday was a vessel that was travelling from Sri Lanka to Christmas Island. It might have been travelling through Indonesian waters, or it might have been travelling through Indonesia’s search and rescue zone.
If that was the case, and I would have to read the documents to tell, that would explain why.
EMMA ALBERICI: But the boat today that’s obviously in crisis and had so many perish was in Indonesian waters and yet Australian authorities went to assist. In fact today you said yourself many times on various interviews that the reason Australia would intervene is because the Indonesians don’t have the capacity to save lives?
JASON CLARE: I didn’t say that, Emma.
EMMA ALBERICI: That was exactly what you said, actually.
JASON CLARE: Look, I don’t think it was. Let me explain what’s happened. This is in international waters, not Indonesian waters but it is in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone. Indonesia’s search and rescue zone stretches along the archipelago all the way south, down to Christmas Island, quite a long way.
This search and rescue area, as I said, is halfway in between. As we got more information about this boat, and on Wednesday our Dash-8 aircraft flew over the top, saw the vessel travelling south, flew out over the area yesterday at three o’clock, saw the boat capsized, and the advice to me is that Border Protection Command took the action then to send the vessels north and to send a P3 aircraft to drop inflatable life rafts into the area.
That’s the sort of action you would expect Australian authorities to take, to get there as quick as possible to potentially save lives.
What it’s meant is that 109 people are still alive today, but unfortunately, as I’ve said, I think over the course of the next few days we’re going to find out that a terrible tragedy has unfolded, and that many many people have died.
EMMA ALBERICI: Ninety, up to 100 others may have perished.
JASON CLARE: I think that’s right, yes.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now are you concerned that this fax or indeed another one as well, might indicate that six hours were lost that you didn’t know about, that potentially time was wasted where other lives could have been saved?
JASON CLARE: Wherever the information is inconsistent I’m concerned. That’s why I’m going to investigate that. What you’ve said is this happened six hours before that first 10 o’clock phone call. Now that’s an important point. What is also …
EMMA ALBERICI: And it also says that it wasn’t the first communication?
JASON CLARE: Yes, I have to get to the bottom of that. The most important phone call here is the one at 1:30 where the advice to me is we found out where the boat was.The boat was 38 nautical miles south of Indonesia. The advice I’ve got is that AMSA gave the advice to the people on the boat to turn back. I wish they had. If that boat had turned back and travelled 38 nautical miles north rather than 70 nautical miles south there would potentially more people alive today than seems to be the case now.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now, 200 people dead in the past six months alone. What will be done to stop these people making this perilous journey?
JASON CLARE: Well my focus today is on the search and rescue. There’s going to be a debate about what’s the best way to stop this. You can bet that that will occur. But as long as …
EMMA ALBERICI: It’s already started to occur, the other part of politics is already talking about this, in fact Liberal MP Mal Washer has called on both sides to sit down and find a bipartisan approach to end this insidious trade in human lives.
JASON CLARE: Yes and Mal is quite entitled to make those comments. I’m …
EMMA ALBERICI: Do you agree there needs to be a bipartisan approach now? You’ve talked all day about this 36-hour window, it’s over, you’ve just said that yourself. The time now is to surely look at ways to stop this happening from . .
JASON CLARE: Yes, Emma, my views on this have been well known. I’ve been saying for a long long time we need to work together to stop people dying. As I said, 200 people died off the coast off the coast of Indonesia. Eleven died off the coast of Malaysia. More people are dead now.
We need to work together to fix this, to stop people dying at sea. I’m the Minister for Home Affairs. My job is, as long as I’ve got planes in the air and boats on the sea and there are people that are still alive, or people that have perished out in the ocean, my job is to make sure we’re doing everything we can to save lives, and look after the men and women that are out there doing that work for us.
EMMA ALBERICI: Thanks very much for coming in this evening.
JASON CLARE: Thanks, Emma.
EMMA ALBERICI: And a clarification relating to our interview, the Minister for Home Affairs Jason Clare has contacted the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, AMSA and has been advised that the date stamp on the relevant fax sent to Indonesia shows that it was sent at 2am on June 20, not 4pm on June 19.
NOTE: Customs and Border Protection have issued a statement subsequent to Lateline’s interview with Minister Jason Clare clarifying the time code used by AMSA.
That statement can be found at: http://www.customs.gov.au/site/120623mediarelease_lateline.asp
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