Book review

Duty of care

16 Jun 2013

Review Details
Date: 16 June 2013
Author: Ann-Mari Jordens

Book Details
Title: Reluctant Rescuers
Date Published: 2012
Author/s: Tony Kevin

THIS book, a sequel to his 2004 analysis of the sinking of the SIEV X, A Certain Maritime Incident, is one Tony Kevin hoped he would not have to write. It asks the same questions and employs the same fact-based inductive methods, drawing on referenced public sources, as his earlier book. This book, however, focuses on the sinking of four subsequent asylum boats—in October 2009, November and December 2010 and December 2011.

Reluctant Rescuers is not about Australia’s asylum seeker reception and processing policies, nor is it a condemnation of the record and practice of Australian Customs and Border Protection Command’s (BPC) generally good record of achievements since 1998. It is, however, highly critical of the core assumptions and values of the border protection system’s self-generated culture. This, combined with government interference in the Navy’s safety of life at sea (SOLAS) obligations, he argues, has contributed to the deaths of approximately 900 asylum seekers who tried to reach Australia in small boats over the past 13 years. Over 24,000 people (97% of embarked asylum seekers) he points out, were safely detected and intercepted into Australian custody.

The central question Kevin poses in this book is ‘how can Australia police unauthorised boat arrivals safely and ethically?’ Its paradoxical title, he explains, summarises its key themes—‘the oddity of a basically decent Australian border protection system, that generally protects safety of life at sea and rescues asylum seekers in actual or potential distress at sea… with efficiency and compassion—but that as a system refuses to acknowledge that this is what it does, or what it wants to do’.

This book was inspired by the shipwreck of the SIEV 221 on Christmas Island, a tragedy that shocked Australian television viewers in December 2011. Kevin deduced much information on the failed processes that contributed to the deaths of 50 of that boat’s passengers from the only two of the four subsequent enquiries whose findings were open to the public. His forensic analysis of the available evidence inducts his reader as far as possible into this shadowy area of public policy. The procedural deficiencies he identifies stemmed from several practices. Practice of not naming naming boats heading for Australia with asylum seekers, created doubt about whether that boat really existed, and confusion in the system’s chain of command about its legal and ethical obligations according to Australia’s international safety of life at sea commitments. BPC interception of a Suspected Irregular Entry Vessel (SIEV), he observes, ‘only becomes a rescue-at-sea operation once BPC “declares” it to be’. Kevin argues that Australia’s obligations to protect human life are engaged from the time a boat leaves Indonesian territorial waters bound for Australia, not just when a BPC operational aircraft ship or aircrafts detects it to be in distress at sea and declares a SOLAS emergency.

The effect of the excision of Australia’s offshore territories Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef from Australia’s migration zone since 2001, he believes, has led Customs and BPC to consider the location and interception of asylum seeker boats heading to these excised areas of lesser priority than those heading for mainland Australia. He fears that this could contribute to a perception that Australia’s rescue obligations for the people on these boats are reduced. Since this book was published. the entire Australian mainland has been excluded from the migration zone. One wonders what effect this will have on the safety of those who will inevitably try to make the longer journey to the Australian mainland. The Coalition’s professed ‘core policy’ of turning back asylum seeker boats to Indonesia when elected, Kevin fears, risks repeating the stress, and damage to solidarity and morale inflicted on the Navy by a similar attempt by the Howard government to turn back the 12 SIEVs intercepted during Operation Relex in 2001.

The problem of protecting the safety of desperate people arriving irregularly in boats is not unique to Australia. Despite intensive NATO nations’ maritime surveillance, periodic unexplained disappearances of irregular boats occur in the Mediterranean, and between Haiti and the US, despite intensive US Coast Guard surveillance. ‘It appears that Australia is becoming part of a global process of moral desensitisation and brutalisation taking place on the maritime border zones of rich Western countries that are readily accessible by sea to asylum seekers travelling from or through adjacent poor countries’, Kevin concludes. He has published this book in the hope of promoting public discussion in Australia of the intelligence-based border protection system’s duty of care to human beings. •

Ann-Mari Jordens is a Canberra-based writer.

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