Saving Lives at Sea

Responsibility for saving lives at sea is not a matter of sovereign jurisdiction. It is the responsibility of all countries and all seafarers regardless of where a ship might be in distress.

Recent tragedies involving the deaths of hundreds of asylum seekers in the waters between Indonesia and Australia have focussed attention on responsibilities for maritime search and rescue (SAR).

In December 2011, a boat sank south of Java and over 200 asylum seekers drowned. Another 90 people died when a boat capsized between Java and Christmas Island on 21 June 2012. An incident with a happier outcome occurred several days later when 123 people were rescued by Australian patrol boats from a sinking vessel although some may still have drowned. The worst incident in these waters occurred in 2001 when an asylum seeking vessel sank and about 350 men, women and children died.

Media reports have suggested delays and some lack of coordination between Australian and Indonesian authorities in responding to asylum seeker vessels in distress. The situation might have been aggravated on the Australian side because different agencies are responsible for border protection and maritime SAR. A change of lead agency is required when a refugee boat being tracked towards Australia gets into distress. SAR emergencies are occurring more frequently as most refugee boats are over-loaded and unseaworthy.

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Article and image courtesy of Eurasia Review, written by Sam Bateman.

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