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Missing Asylum Seeker Vessels

Estimates & Committees
Penny Wright 25 Oct 2011

Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee
Tuesday 18 October 2011

Senator WRIGHT: The background to my questions are two missing boats, one of which left Indonesia on 2 or 3 October 2009 with 105 Hazaras aboard. The second left Indonesia on or about 13 or 14 November 2010 with up to 97 people aboard. First of all, in relation to the latter boat, Customs told the Sunday Age on 26 December 2010 that Customs was not aware of the missing boat of 97 people and told the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 May 2011 that it had not received any calls about it. Since then, Customs and Border Protection have said:

A number of enquiries were received by the Department relating to people who were believed by family members to have travelled from Indonesia to Australia on or around 13 November 2010 and had not been heard from since. These calls were received via the SIEV 221 hotline established following the Christmas Island boat crash disaster on 15 December 2010.

My first question is: can Customs explain the contradiction? Why did it initially say it was unaware of the missing boat and then change its mind?

Mr Carmody: Because at the time the statements made they were accurate. At that time we did not have information available to us.

Senator WRIGHT: I am just trying to make sense of that answer, given the dates that I am aware of. The first statement to the Sunday Age was made on 26 December 2010 but the calls were apparently received by the SIEV221 hotline established following the Christmas Island boat crash disaster on 15 December 2010. Are you saying that the calls that came in were after 26 December 2010?

Mr Carmody: No. To clarify, the advice given by our people was in respect of what we knew and what calls we had received. The SIEV221 hotline calls you are referring to were received by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

Senator WRIGHT: So the information was not passed on to Customs as far as you are aware.

Mr Carmody: It was not until we received one inquiry that was after the date that that media inquiry was made.

Senator WRIGHT: Which of the two dates that I referred to was it after? Can you tell me?

Mr Carmody: In each case of the statements that were made we had not received what was the basis of the inquiry; we had not received that information at that time.

Senator WRIGHT: If you do not have the information now, at what date were you first aware of the fact that there had been a number of inquiries received by the department relating to people who were believed to be family members? At what date were you advised that there were inquiries made on the SIEV221 hotline?

Mr Carmody: We received one inquiry directly to Customs and Border Protection. That was on 29 July 2011, which was after the dates you were referring to.

Senator WRIGHT: Was that directly from a family member or a concerned member of the community?

Mr Carmody: It was a family member, as I understand it.

Senator WRIGHT: I understood from your answer that there was information passed on to you from the department of immigration, who would have been in receipt of the information in relation to the SIEV hotline. When was that information passed on?

Mr Carmody: It was after 26 December 2010, which is the relevant date. It was actually received on 4 January 2011.

Senator WRIGHT: I did refer to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald dated 8 May 2011, which was four months after 4 January.

Mr Carmody: Yes. I think that was a different issue.

Mr Pezzullo: In relation to the Sydney Morning Herald article on 8 May to which you refer, I do not have the article in front of me but as I recall the article having cleared the media response I have got a fairly direct recall of it. The journalist inquired why it was that in the December response that we had previously given to the same journalist, Ms O'Brien, we had not been in a position to identify those calls that had been made to DIAC, as the CEO has just said, because we were notified on 4 January. So that deals with an element of the Sydney Morning Herald story of 8 May.

The journalist who wrote the story in May for the also asked a question about whether at that time we had received any direct calls about that venture. As I recall it and as the CEO has just indicated, over the course of these past months whilst this matter has been a matter of public interest, our agency received one call directly, in July, and, as the CEO is indicated, that was received on 29 July of this year.

Senator WRIGHT: Just turning to the second boat, this was the boat with 105 Hazaras aboard which went missing on or around 2nd or 3rd of October 2009. The home affairs minister, Brendan O'Connor, was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on 25 May 2010 as saying that 'subsequent credible information' to Customs showed the boat's difficulties had been resolved. He later added:

... surveillance activities that day by border protection command did not detect a vessel in distress.

But since then, Customs and Border Protection has been quoted as saying:

... information Customs and Border Protection received about a vessel in distress on 3 October 2009 may have referred to this incident ... Customs and Border Protection advised the Australian Maritime Safety Authority ... of a possible distress situation, including possible vessel coordinates ... AMSA contacted ... the Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency, who accepted responsibility for coordinating the search.

So my first question in relation to this vessel is: where did Customs get the information from that there was a boat in distress?

Mr Carmody: I do not know that I can go into specific detail of intelligence we receive, but it was a report about a possible vessel in distress. We did cover this in the estimates hearing in May of last year.

Senator WRIGHT: My understanding is that additional information has come to light, which is why I am asking these questions again. So there was a report that there was a boat in distress?

Mr Carmody: We received a level of intelligence that a vessel may have departed and be in distress. Then we provided that information to AMSA. Because the possible location was reported to be in the Indonesian search and rescue zone, AMSA then, as is normal practice, provided that information to BASARNAS, the Indonesian search and rescue authority. I am not quite sure of the sequence. Shortly after we got the initial evidence, we got a further source of intelligence that said that the vessel was no longer in distress. BASARNAS also reported back that they had been unable to locate a vessel in distress. Notwithstanding that, we continued a flight pattern just to make sure as best we could whether there was such a vessel in distress and that showed no evidence, there was no sighting of the vessel.

Senator WRIGHT: But it sounds from your answer that there was no firm evidence that the vessel had been located, so—

Mr Carmody: We never located a vessel—

Senator WRIGHT: the assumption was that because no vessel was found, there was not a vessel.

Mr Carmody: We do not know. The truth is that we just do not know. There were those reports. We pursued them. AMSA pursued them. We were never able to locate the vessel.

Senator WRIGHT: What date was that initial report made?

Mr Carmody: On 3 October 2009.

Senator WRIGHT: You have indicated that you do not feel at liberty to indicate who made that initial report.

Mr Carmody: That is right.

Senator WRIGHT: What degree of credibility was attached to the report?

Mr Carmody: It was sufficient for them to make the report for us. We take all these issues seriously because of the potential consequences. We judged it sufficient to raise it with AMSA and then judged it sufficient to raise it with BASARNAS. Notwithstanding BASARNAS's response that they were unable to locate any such vessel in distress, we did take the precaution of continuing to do a flying pattern to attempt to locate it.

Senator WRIGHT: What period of time was that over?

Mr Carmody: It was over a number of days, I think.

Senator WRIGHT: You are not quite sure but you think it was a number of days?

Mr Carmody: No, I do not have the exact detail of the flying time but it was a few days.

Senator WRIGHT: I might ask you to take that question on notice and then we can establish what period of time.

Mr Carmody: We will take that on notice.

Senator WRIGHT: The question comes back to the fact that the home affairs minister was then quoted as saying that 'subsequent credible information' to Customs showed the boat's difficulties had been resolved. What difficulties would they have been?

Mr Carmody: I referred to that in my answer, that—

Senator WRIGHT: Difficulties in that they were not able to be found?

Mr Carmody: No, the difficulties with the vessel. I do not know whether there were mechanical or other difficulties but the difficulties that were leading to the view that they were in distress.

Senator WRIGHT: What was the basis on which it was considered that their difficulties had been resolved? What was the information that was provided? That seems a very assertive statement to make. What was the basis of the information that they had difficulties and that they had been satisfactorily resolved?

Mr Carmody: The report was that the difficulties had been resolved, yes.

Senator WRIGHT: And you cannot tell me who made that report?

Mr Carmody: I would prefer not to go into our sources. I can just say again that, notwithstanding that report, we did continue to take precautionary action to seek to identify whether there was any such vessel.

Senator WRIGHT: It was a vessel that was never actually identified is what I understand to be the case.

Mr Carmody: We have never been able to identify it as a vessel that arrived, for example.

Senator WRIGHT: But there was a report that the vessel was potentially in sufficiently serious trouble to involve a procedure and then there was another report that their trouble had been resolved but you cannot give any further information about who made that report or any other basis on which you accepted that report, although I accept also that you have given evidence—

Mr Carmody: They were from the same sources, I believe.

Senator WRIGHT: They were from the same sources?

Mr Carmody: I believe they were.

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