Ruddock defends inaction on refugees lost at sea

The World Today
Thursday, 14 December 2000
Reporter: Michael Vincent

COMPERE: The Australian Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, is defending his decision not to ask for a major search and rescue operation for more than 160 boat people feared to have been caught in cyclonic conditions off the north-west coast of Australia, possibly drowned.

This, of course, in the context that the Howard Government has, several times over recent years, authorised extremely hazardous long haul search and rescue operations with the full resources of the Navy and the Air Force for individual sailors in yacht races at massive public expense, but despite knowing about the boat people's journey and the cyclonic weather conditions, and the potentially fatal hazards, the Minister says that he's merely asked the aerial coast watch to enhance efforts of surveillance in the area.

Mr Ruddock has been speaking to World Today reporter, Michael Vincent.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: In terms of having precise locations where you can mount a search we just don't have them. These vessels don't travel with beacons that you see for yachtsmen that will pinpoint exactly where the vessel might be, where it may have foundered. We don't know how long ago, we don't know in which area. All we can do with the resources that we have is to endeavour to see whether or not there are further people that can be rescued.

MICHAEL VINCENT: But why did you say then that you had mounted a search when in fact all that has happened is the Coast Watch has been asked to look out for them, keep an eye out for them as part of their normal searches?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: What I said yesterday and I'm just reading precisely what I said is that we're doing everything in our powers to verify the reports.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has been asked to attempt to locate any maritime reports of the incident. Coast Watch has also been informed and what I did yesterday was to ask Coast Watch whether they could enhance their efforts in the area to see what further can be done, but to expect that Australian Search and Rescue authorities would be able to mount a search in relation to areas that are part of Indonesian responsibility, their territorial waters...

MICHAEL VINCENT: You believe these people may have drowned or may be trouble in Indonesian waters?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well I'm simply saying they left Indonesia. They have been essentially at sea for more than a week, there's been a tropical cyclone in the area. We have not sighted the vessels in the areas which we survey, I think the assumption could very safely be drawn that the foundering would have been more likely in Indonesian waters.

MICHAEL VINCENT: Is that why you believe you haven't mounted a Tony Bullimore or Isabella Autissier like search?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: No, I'm saying that those sorts of searches were undertaken in circumstances where we knew where they were, where people had taken proper precautions in terms of using beacons to enable pinpointing where you need to go and where you need to mount your search.

These people get on to flimsy boats which have little in the way of live saving equipment, have certainly little in the way of navigational devices, and are a very high risk.

We believe that 350 people were lost in the period of April and May of this year.

MICHAEL VINCENT: But you are happy to use the 160 deaths as an example to other boat people even though it's possible, given a proper search and rescue you could have saved them?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well I'm sorry. Look, you are imputing motives to me which I think are quite unreasonable. I'm not trying to use people's deaths in any way at all but what would the story be if when information is received by me I were to attempt to conceal it.

I mean it's not a question of using a tragedy like this. It's a question of ensuring that the information is available, that people know what steps that we are taking and that there is an awareness.

MICHAEL VINCENT: And now you will be using these 160 deaths as part of your information campaign?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: We will certainly ensure that people are aware of the risks that are involved. It's not a question of using. I mean this is not a question of abuse, it's a question of can you reasonably withhold information that ought to be known and people ought to be aware of, particularly when they are being abused by the people smugglers

COMPERE: Australia's Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock there speaking to our reporter, Michael Vincent.


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