Australia: Report criticises lack of safety measures for border surveillance

24 January 2011

A boat laden with refugees is driven onto rocks at Christmas Island in this still image taken from video December 15, 2010. Twenty-seven asylum seekers have died and dozens may be missing after heavy waves smashed their timber boat onto rocks on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean off Australia on Wednesday, sinking the boat and throwing people into stormy seas. REUTERS/Network 7 via Reuters TV

Sydney, 24 January 2010 – After finding the authorities had no advance warning of the arrival of boats of migrants and refugees in distress, an internal customs investigation has recommended the installation of land-based radar at Australia’s remote Christmas Island.

The report was undertaken after a boat crashed into the island’s cliffs last December. Refugees are believed to have desperately phoned police for help before the accident.

According to reports, the boat left Indonesia carrying approximately 90 Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish refugees. Forty-eight are known to have died in the accident as women and children were thrown into the seas screaming for assistance. Rescuers subsequently pulled 41 survivors from the water.

The boat was first spotted about 600 metres offshore, approximately an hour before the accident. Despite aerial surveillance and an intensive intelligence operation in Indonesia – a key transit point for Australia-bound refugees – the report said border authorities appeared to have no prior warning of the ship.

The report recommended the trial of a land-based radar system at Christmas Island, known as the smuggling corridor from Indonesia. In light of the current number of irregular maritime arrivals, it also proposed that resource levels allocated to border patrol be reviewed.

Focus on people

More than 6,300 asylum seekers, predominantly from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sri Lanka, made their way to Australia by boat last year – the highest number on record.

Speaking immediately after the tragedy, JRS Australia Director, Fr Sacha Bermudez-Goldman SJ, stated this incident demonstrated that people would rather risk death aboard a boat than face persecution in their home countries.

“Any people-smuggling operation is a tragedy waiting to happen… The bottom line is no vessel, let alone a vessel heavily laden with civilians, should have been out there”, said Australia’s Attorney-General Robert McClelland.

Human rights organisations have consistently said that the focus needs to be on saving lives and providing protection to people. In the long run, this may include strengthening asylum procedures in countries in the region; however, it should never include preventing refugees from reaching safety.

Moreover, JRS has consistently urged governments to ensure the lives of people are put before border security.

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