: Coroner says Christmas Island tragedy was ‘foreseeable’

Coroner says Christmas Island tragedy was ‘foreseeable’

Anthea Vogl
Western Australia

On 23 February 2012 the Western Australian State Coroner, Alastair Hope, delivered the ‘Christmas Island Tragedy’ inquest findings. The findings pertain to the death of 50 asylum seekers, who died in the coastal sea territory of Christmas Island on 15 December 2010. The deceased were on board a vessel identified by Australian authorities as Suspected Irregular Entry Vessel 221 (‘SIEV 221’). The Coroner reported that the event involved the largest peacetime loss of human life in a maritime incident in Australian waters in 115 years.

Of those who died, 30 bodies were recovered and identified, and the Coroner was satisfied that drowning was the cause of death in each case. The bodies of 20 of those who died were not located. The Coroner established their identities beyond reasonable doubt and was satisfied that their deaths were caused by drowning or as a result of injuries caused by the sinking of the vessel. 42 of the 90 passengers on board survived.

The Coroner’s findings establish the circumstances surrounding the incident, including but not limited to:

  • Arrival of SIEV 221 at Christmas Island;
  • Emergency Calls from SIEV 221 to 000;
  • Involvement of Border Protection Command;
  • Available Intelligence; and
  • Response to the Emergency.

The Coroner drew conclusions regarding a number of key issues raised by the inquest, including whether the disaster was foreseeable, whether or not it was a realistic possibility for the rescue vehicles to have arrived earlier, the quality of the emergency response and the conduct of those responsible for organising the journey.
Critically, the Coroner found the tragedy was foreseeable and that the AFP, as the government agency responsible for search and rescue operations on Christmas Island, was not prepared in its response to tragedy. He found that the AFP did not have ‘a viable marine rescue service on the island’ and that this was ‘extremely unsatisfactory and unsafe’.

In relation to the emergency response, the Coroner found that the naval and customs officers involved acted as efficiently as they could have in the circumstances and ‘demonstrated great courage and resourcefulness’. He also found that it appeared ‘both the vessel and its passengers were expendable’ to the individuals responsible for organising the journey and that they undoubtedly contributed to the deaths. However, he made an open finding as to how the deaths arose due to pending criminal prosecutions.

The findings also include 14 recommendations directed primarily towards the possibility of ‘enhancing surveillance to the north of Christmas Island, improving the capability for an emergency at sea response from Christmas Island and reducing risks for naval personnel involved in rescue operations’.

The full report is available at http://www.coronerscourt.wa.gov.au/_files/Christmas_Island_Findings.pdf

ANTHEA VOGL is a PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney.

(2012) 37(2) AltLJ 139
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