Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has defended Australia’s response to an asylum seeker boat that sank off Indonesia as survivors claim the tragedy could have been prevented.
With Prime Minister Tony Abbott flying to Indonesia on Monday for his first overseas visit, his government is under fire for its handling of the disaster, which left up to 50 people dead or missing.
Indonesian authorities say there is little hope of finding more survivors from the boat that sank off Java on Friday, with searchers being hampered by rough seas on Sunday.
Twenty-eight people, including seven children, have so far been confirmed dead while more than 20 remain missing.
One survivor told how a GPS location was sent to Australian authorities when multiple distress calls were made on Thursday.
“We called the Australian government for 24 hours. They were telling us ‘we’re coming, we’re coming, we’re coming’, and they didn’t come,” he said “This is because of the Australian government. I want them to know that,” he said of the tragedy.
The survivor has also implicated Indonesian authorities as playing a role in getting passengers to the boat. “The army took us,” he said. “The army was driving the cars.”
A spokesman for Mr Morrison said suggestions Australian authorities were slow to act were “absolutely and totally wrong. The government completely rejects allegations of a 26-hour delay in response to this tragic incident by Australian agencies,” Mr Morrison’s office said in a statement issued on Sunday.
“Australian agencies acted on the information provided on this tragic incident.”
Mr Morrison said initial searches failed to find the boat, which was reported to be about 25 nautical miles off the Indonesian coast.
“The Australians who work for our rescue and border protection agencies respond to all such events with great professionalism and a keenly felt sense of duty, as they did on this occasion,” the statement said.
“This is a tragic event. The Australian government’s thoughts and sympathies are with those affected by this tragedy. The government will continue to provide any assistance required by the Indonesian government.”
Australian Greens leader Christine Milne called for an immediate inquiry into the government’s involvement in the “heartbreaking” tragedy.
“I would expect that to happen before the next parliament sits,” Senator Milne said.
Labor leadership candidate Bill Shorten criticised the Abbott government’s approach to asylum seekers, saying “sooner or later they’re going to work out that three-word slogans don’t solve issues, and don’t solve refugees or immigration”.
People smuggling is expected to be high on the agenda when Mr Abbott meets with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta.
Indonesia’s foreign minister Marty Natalegawa last week warned any violation of his country’s borders could damage neighbourly relations, in a pointed criticism of the coalition’s policy to turn back the boats.
Mr Shorten accused the coalition of “bagging” Indonesia in the stand-off over asylum seeker policy.
“One of the key platforms or planks to making sure we’ve got a safe and sustainable policy is to have a good relationship with Indonesia,” he said,
“I’m not sure that getting out and bagging the Indonesians is really helpful.
“If they can’t work out that Indonesia and working co-operatively with Indonesia’s important to handling the challenging issues of asylum seekers and refugees, then that’s a worry.”
- Morrison rejects claims of boat delay (news.smh.com.au)
- Australian immigration minister rejects claims government delayed response to asylum seeker boat that sank – AAP (news.com.au)
- Asylum seeker boat sank 50 metres off Indonesian shore, survivors say (abc.net.au)
- Greens want boat inquiry: Milne (news.theage.com.au)
- Australian Greens call for inquiry into boat tragedy (radionz.co.nz)