Boat People – Cover-up or Stuff-up

REPORTER: Geoff Parish

This is the sharp end of Australia`s tough policy to deter asylum seekers, known as Operation Relex.

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A unit from HMAS `Arunta` has boarded a boat and is taking it back to Indonesia. The asylum seekers are angry, confused and desperate. One man throws himself into the water. A child is held up. Operation Relex was top secret until the Senate began its inquiry into “A Certain Maritime Incident”. Unofficially, it`s called “the children overboard inquiry”. Now, Australia`s most senior naval commanders and public servants are being grilled. The committee wants to know how Operation Relex works, the chain of command and where information flows. Rear Admiral Geoffrey Smith is Australia`s Maritime Commander.

SENATOR ANDREW BARTLET, DEMOCRATS: Just in terms of the range of your commands with Operation Relex, does that include all of the vessels patrolling the regions? Does that include the Orion aircraft as well as navy vessels?

REAR ADMIRAL GEOFFREY SMITH, NAVAL COMMANDER: Yes, it does, Senator.

SENATOR ANDREW BARTLETT: So you would be aware of that their movements are and what they see. They would be providing reports to you as well?

REAR ADMIRAL GEOFFREY SMITH: Yes, that is correct. There were RAAF P3s, and there were also Coastwatch aircraft which were working to us for this operation.

Operation Relex has thrown a surveillance and naval interception net over the north-west approaches to Australia that extends almost to Indonesia.

REAR ADMIRAL GEOFFREY SMITH: You must look at this operation in all dimensions. The air surveillance was being conducted up near the Indonesian archipelago, as close as 30-odd miles, and south from there. The ships, however, were positioned where we felt them best positioned to maximise our chances of interception.

Australia also gathers intelligence in Indonesia`s ports and along the coastline. And it`s not just a military operation. Above all this sits the Government`s People Smuggling Task Force. It feeds information and operational advice to the highest levels, including the Prime Minister`s Office. Operation Relex has so far intercepted 12 suspected illegal entry vessels, known by their acronym as SIEV`s. But on May 1, the inquiry dealt with a vessel known as SIEV-X that sank, killing 353 people.

TONY KEVIN, FORMER DIPLOMAT: I greatly admire the professionalism, camaraderie and integrity of the navy and of the Australian Defence Force as a whole.

Tony Kevin, former Australian ambassador to Cambodia, appeared before the inquiry and made some disturbing assertions.

TONY KEVIN: Something went seriously wrong in the information chain in Australia`s border protection system during October 2001 that had terrible human life consequences.

Kevin reminded the inquiry that SIEV-X had been grossly overloaded with people forced to board under duress. After sailing for about a day and a half, it sank on October 19 last year. There were only 44 survivors. One was Sundous Ismael. She lost her three young children and her sister. Her picture was flashed around Australia and around the world. Her grief humanised the plight of the asylum seekers. She`ll never forget the moment the boat went down.

SUNDOUS ISMAEL, SURVIVOR (Translation): Then a big wave struck us from the side and we sank. All of us, children, women and men. The men had been standing on one side in order to balance the boat. Those men fell straight into the sea. The children were sliding off into the sea.

It was by far the largest loss of life in people smuggling operations to Australia. Tony Kevin`s highly controversial view is that Australia must have known about the vessel and should have done something.

TONY KEVIN: There were many ways that Australia might have acted to prevent the loss of 353 lives, if that information had come to Canberra in time and if it had been properly handled in Canberra at the time it sank.

Shocked by the magnitude of the tragedy, Kevin began to investigate what had happened. After careful calculations, based on media reports and information given in the Senate inquiry, he concluded the boat went down in international waters, and not in the vicinity of Indonesia`s Sunda Strait, as claimed by the Australian Government. Where the boat sank is crucial. All vessels must respond to a Safety of Life at Sea Emergency, known as SOLAS. That includes the powerful navy frigates of Operation Relex, if they receive information of a SOLAS emergency.

TONY KEVIN: Just showing you – the first map just showing the area of operation of Operation Relex – you have got Christmas Island over here and Ashmore Reef over here and you have got the 30-mile off Java up here, running along there.

Kevin has also used information contained in this letter from Defence Minister Robert Hill to Opposition Leader Simon Crean. It states the Government view that the vessel was in the vicinity of the Sunda Strait when it sank on October 19. The letter also says that the frigate HMAS `Arunta` was at no time closer than 150 nautical miles from the Sunda Strait where it is believed the refugee vessel sank.

TONY KEVIN: They were in the water for 22 hours and dying gradually in the water as people lost the will to live and dropped off their planks, and `Arunta` could have been there in four hours. So even if Australia had, for example, only became aware of the sinking as the sinking happened, for example through satellite imagery or through some kind of aerial surveillance, there would have still been time to do something had there been the will to do something.

Dateline has obtained a set of co-ordinates from the Harbour Master here at Sunda Kelapa port in north Jakarta. The coordinates are from this document, detailing how the rescue by Indonesian fishing boats and show the point where the survivors were picked up. The position is very similar to Tony Kevin`s calculations of where the boat went down. Expert advice provided to Dateline say the coordinates are 51.5 nautical miles from the Indonesian coastline. If the coordinates are correct, then the vessel sank in international waters well beyond the Sunda Strait and within the surveillance area of Operation Relex.

TONY KEVIN: If it went down in the Indian Ocean, more than 12 miles from Indonesia, and particularly if it went down at 30 miles from Indonesia, which is the outer limit of Australia`s air surveillance under Operation Relex – Australia`s regular air surveillance – well, that makes it a SOLAS completely in international waters requiring an emergency response from the nearest available country`s resources that can do something about it.

REPORTER: Presumably HMAS `Arunta`?

TONY KEVIN: Yes.

SENATOR JOHN FAULKNER, ALP: I think you are saying to us, that your thesis is, given the intensity of this issue in terms of its prominence, in terms of Government policy, and the sensitive time and the priority that Operation Relex has, with the resources applied to Relex, it is not likely that any of these vessels wouldn`t have been closely tracked. Is that what you are saying to us?

TONY KEVIN: Yes.

SENATOR JOHN FAULKNER: Without going into all the detail of it, you are making that assumption?

TONY KEVIN: It`s not really an assumption, Senator. It is based on my careful reading of evidence in this committee by expert witnesses.

So, who knew what about the ill-fated SIEV-X, when did they know it, and where did that information go? That`s precisely what the Senate inquiry has been trying to find out. Defence Minister Robert Hill`s letter to Simon Crean contains more important information, specifically that Coastwatch had, in fact, advised Australian authorities that a vessel had departed the Sunda Strait, on or about 18/19 October 2001, bound for Christmas Island, and was overdue. But the Australian Maritime Safety Authority told the Senate inquiry they only received the message on 22 October.

CLIVE DAVIDSON, CEO AUSTRALIAN MARITIME SAFETY AUTHORITY: AMSA`s records show that it had no prior knowledge about the departure of this vessel. The first advice on our records was by Coastwatch on October 22 last year.

By then, the boat was more than overdue. It had sunk three days earlier on the 19th. The Maritime Safety Authority even sent a fax to their Indonesian counterpart, BASARNAS, noting the vessel was late. But had the ill-fated boat still been afloat, there was no way that BASARNAS could have responded. They have no record of the fax.

L SIPAHUTAR, CHIEF OF BASARNAS (Translation): So, looking at all the data I have, all my log books and my staff`s diaries, it isn`t there. And I repeat – when there is a report from anywhere, as long as it comes to our fax machine, a record is made of where it is from. Only then is it distributed.

AMSA says it was sent, but incredibly weren`t concerned enough to check it had arrived.

CLIVE DAVIDSON: We do ring them from time to time and have discussions to ensure that they are aware of the situation. But in a case like this, I think our records show there wasn`t any phone contact.

And what of the high priority Operation Relex, with all its naval intelligence-gathering capabilities, its aircraft surveillance and navy frigates? They too apparently knew nothing.

REAR ADMIRAL GEOFFREY SMITH: First of all, I must say that I cannot pass up the opportunity to get this on the record. I took great offence, on behalf of the navy, at that suggestion that a professional organisation such as our navy would even allow or ignore a circumstance such as that if we were in a position to be able to assist. And indeed, the first time that the navy knew that this vessel had sailed was in fact we were advised through the search-and-rescue organisation in Canberra, that this vessel may have foundered in the vicinity of the Sunda Strait. At that time our nearest ship was about 150 miles away.

TONY KEVIN: It`s all back to front. I mean the idea that the navy sits and knows nothing until Coastwatch or AMSA tell it about an asylum seeker boat that has gone missing on the way to Australia, when the navy is precisely in the business of tracking and intercepting asylum seeker boats on the way to Australia is incredible.

Incredible or not, it is one of a series of unexplained events in this tragic tale. Why, for example, were 400 people crammed under duress onto a leaky boat that, even if it were seaworthy, could carry no more than 150 people in safety? Sundous Ismael went into the water at about 3pm on Friday afternoon on 19 October. But when it grew dark, she thought she`d be rescued. She and other survivors tell of two large boats that shone bright lights on them. According to Sundous, the boats stayed for what seemed like hours.

SUNDOUS ISMAEL (Translation): People were blowing their whistles, everyone was blowing their rescue whistle. I don`t know if they heard us. We expected them to hear. They were very close to us.

By morning, the mysterious vessels were gone without rescuing a single asylum seeker. As we`ve heard, the Australian Navy say they had no boats in the area. Sundous was rescued by an Indonesian fishing boat around 8:00am the next day. She`d spent about 18 hours in the water. Some survivors spent even longer. Remember, HMAS `Arunta` was only about five hours away. Tony Kevin is now very publicly putting the view that information about the boat was in the system, but nothing was done about it.

TONY KEVIN: I read into that the possibility of a decision having been taken in Canberra – somewhere in Canberra – that this boat was probably not going to get to Christmas Island anyway, so it wasn`t necessary for the navy or Operation Relex to be told about it, that basically the problem of this boat would solve itself.

REPORTER: Now, that`s a very strong statement?

TONY KEVIN: Yes.

REPORTER: You see no other interpretation could be drawn from this series of events, perhaps there may be any other number of possibilities occurred?

TONY KEVIN: There isn`t any other number. There`s the possibility of a bureaucratic stuff-up there`s the possibility that somebody lost the report. I frankly find that hard to countenance.

Today, there were dramatic developments in the Senate inquiry contradicting previous testimony by Maritime Commander Rear Admiral Smith. The head of Coastwatch testified that it had provided information to military intelligence about a vessel being prepared by people smuggler Abu Qassai as early as August last year. It was the ill-fated SIEV-X.

REAR ADMIRAL MARC BONSER, DIRECTOR-GENERAL COASTWATCH: Coastwatch originally received information as early as August 2001, that Abu Qassai was allegedly in the process of arranging a boat departure of illegal immigrants, probably to Christmas Island.

An intelligence report provided the day after the vessel left port even included this chillingly accurate assessment.

REAR ADMIRAL MARC BONSER: The information included advice that the vessel was reportedly small and overcrowded. The full detail of the advice is classified.

And there were more revelations. A letter from Maritime Commander, Rear Admiral Smith, was tabled, titled “Clarification of Evidence”. It contradicted his earlier testimony to the Committee given under oath, and confirmed the Coastwatch evidence, that the navy knew about SIEV-X well before it sank on October 19. The letter details intelligence received by the navy in relation to SIEV-X on no less than five occasions including prior to its departure. But Smith terms much of the intelligence `inconclusive` and writes that “No specific confirmation of departure was ever received.” Be it confusion, conspiracy or cover-up, it looks increasingly like Tony Kevin`s concerns are well founded.