Australian government defends decision not to recover bodies from asylum seeker boat


Iranian asylum seekers sit on a boat at Benoa port in Denpasar on Indonesia's island of Bali on May 12, 2013.



The Australian government has defended a decision not to try and recover bodies from an asylum seeker boat that sank off the country's northwest coast.

Roughly 55 people were presumed dead after a three-day air and sea search failed to locate any survivors from a vessel that sank off the Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island last week.

Up to 13 bodies were spotted in the water, along with debris and life-jackets.

However, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation cited the Australian Government as saying that retrieving the bodies was not a priority as rescue authorities were too busy amid concerns over other boats — including one missing off the Cocos Islands.  

It is the fourth boat that Australian authorities have tried to help since the weekend, according to the Fairfax media

The latest vessel had been tracked by Border Protection Command since last Wednesday but gone missing over the weekend, 260 nautical miles north of Cocos Islands, off the coast between Australia and Sri Lanka.

And Australian Navy boats have provided assistance to two other vessels, carrying about 58 and 70 people, Fairfax wrote.

An Australian Customs and Border Protection (ACBP) spokesman told The Guardian why they had decided not to retrieve the bodies from the first boat:

"Vessels and aircraft are involved in a range of high priority operations in the waters near Christmas Island and elsewhere. Our priority in these operations remains the protection of life, responding to water rescues which may prevent any further loss of life."

Various media cited Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard as telling reporters the decision to leave the bodies in the water was a "tough" but necessary "operational decision".

"As border command has made clear, they always put the highest priority on saving lives, and I think we would all understand why that's got to come first in any tasking or any work that border command does.”

However, representatives of Australia's Tamil community said that there would be outrage if the bodies of Australian victims of a boat sinking were left to float in the ocean.

The ABC quoted the executive officer of the Australian Tamil Congress, Bala Vigneswaran, as saying:

"If the Government, or the decision-makers, think it is OK to leave the people behind because they are not Australian and they're not worth it — if they want to put it that way — it's not right. If they were Australians I am sure that I would be angry. I'm sure that everybody here in Australia would be very disappointed and I don't think we would have treated Australians like this."

And Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul said retrieving the bodies would have been a comfort to the families left behind.

"We're always in favor of retrieving their bodies. There are families in refugee communities who look at these episodes with anguish and it can provide closure to get a better idea of who was on the boat and letting people know what has happened to relatives and loved ones."

ABC Radio spoke to a legal expert who said that although it may be expected as a humanitarian gesture, the government was not obligated to recover the bodies.