More than a thousand asylum seekers have died trying to get to Australia by boat. But how many of them could have been saved? Australia’s search and rescue authorities stand accused of unnecessary delays, disregarding distress calls and passing responsibility to Indonesia, which is not equipped to carry out rescue operations.
In the dead of night on 17 December 2011, an asylum seeker boat called the Barokah left the coast of Java with around 250 men, women and children on board. One of them was ethnic Hazara man, Esmat Adine. The boat was so crowded, Adine couldn’t even find a place to sit. The Barokah was just 40 nautical miles from Indonesia when it fell apart.
‘At first I couldn’t believe that our boat has sank,’ Adine recalls. ‘But I saw a toy is coming from the inside of the boat; it is coming by water. When it comes close to me, I realised that no, that was not a toy. That was a kid. That was a kid named Daniel. Daniel was with his mother; they were sitting in front of me, next to me, while we came by bus. When I saw Daniel’s body, I realised that our boat has sank, and there is no further hope for us to be alive. ‘
Eight hours later, at 3 o’clock that afternoon, a passing fishing boat found around a hundred people in high seas, desperately clinging to debris. It was only able to rescue 34 people. Adine shouted to the people in the water, ‘Be patient—we will bring you more boats, and they will rescue you.’
In Canberra that evening, Australian agencies became aware the Barokah had sunk. They told Indonesian authorities, because the boat was in their search and rescue zone.
Months later, customs officials would tell a Senate Estimates hearing that Indonesia had initially declined Australia’s offer to help with the search and rescue.
But the official incident timeline, which Fairfax obtained under freedom information laws, revealed that BASARNAS, Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, had asked AMSA to coordinate the rescue response—AMSA refused.
For two days, while men, women and children struggled to survive in waves up to six metres high, Indonesia and Australia did nothing.
Finally, on December 19, BASARNAS asked again for help. This time, AMSA agreed, and dispatched naval and Customs assets to the scene.
But it was too late. Two hundred and one people were dead.