Asylum boat deaths avoidable, coroner rules

THE West Australian state coroner has criticised the federal government for failing to provide rescue vessels on Christmas Island despite the likelihood a marine tragedy would occur as increasing numbers of flimsy wooden boats carried hundreds of asylum seekers into its dangerous waters unmonitored.

The coroner, Alastair Hope, said the SIEV 221 disaster, which killed 50 asylum seekers on December 15, 2010, was ''generally foreseeable'', and another tragedy remained an ''ongoing risk while these boats continue to travel to Christmas Island''. He has called for visual and radar surveillance to be used.

It was island residents who first spotted SIEV 221 before it was dashed against jagged rocks, killing 50 of its 89 passengers, including 15 children.

The navy had argued to the eight-month-long coronial inquest into Australia's worst maritime accident in 115 years that it wasn't the responsibility of Border Protection Command to monitor people smuggler vessels for safety reasons.

While accepting this, Mr Hope said: ''I cannot accept that it would be beyond the capability of Border Protection Command to put in place a surveillance capability that would be more effective than island residents coincidentally looking out to sea.''

He said if the boat had been detected earlier, more lives would have been saved. It was also ''extremely unsatisfactory and unsafe'' that neither the Australian Federal Police, which has search and rescue responsibility for the island, nor the volunteer marine rescue had any boats that could be used for a marine rescue in bad weather.

It was the Commonwealth's responsibility to provide the boats and, had they been available, more lives could have been saved, Mr Hope said.

Fourteen recommendations included improving surveillance on Christmas Island and giving Australian Federal Police officers search and rescue training.

The Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, said the coroner's report would receive ''exhaustive consideration by the Commonwealth''.

The Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare, said Customs had already doubled the number of vessels based at Christmas Island during the monsoon season and increased aerial surveillance in the area. He said radar didn't provide a guarantee of detecting each boat.

Mr Hope praised the bravery of naval and Customs officers in the rescue, as well as the Christmas Island residents who threw lifejackets to the victims in the water, saying it was a ''remarkable achievement'' that 41 people, including crew, survived.

Barrister Clare O'Connor, who represented the victims and survivors, said the coroner's report ''might provide them with some small comfort if the recommendations are taken on board and implemented so that a disaster like this won't happen in the future''.

But she said the reality was the survivor's grief wouldn't be lifted, because, as the report showed, ''people have died because of the lies told to them and the greed of people smugglers''.

The coroner found the people-smugglers and crew had contributed to the deaths, and had lied about the safety of the boat they boarded in Indonesia.

Mr Hope dismissed as falsehoods the claims by some immigration detainees that they had warned Serco officers about the impending arrival of SIEV 221.

Ms O'Connor was disappointed there was no recommendations about the failure of communications on the island that day, particularly the delay before the captain of the Pirie, Lieutenant-Commander Livingstone, discovered the SIEV was in danger.

The coroner recommended the navy base an officer on Christmas Island to co-ordinate with the community.

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