A Regular Job For Protection Command

A regular job for protection command

Jonathan Pearlman
Defence Correspondent
Sydney Morning Herald
April 17, 2009

FOR Australia's Border Protection Command, boarding and intercepting boatloads of suspected asylum seekers has become an increasingly common task in recent months, but it is not usually fraught with danger.

When an illegal boat is spotted – usually by surveillance aircraft or satellite – the Border Protection Command dispatches a boat to intercept it. In this case, after a boatload of asylum seekers was spotted just off Ashmore Reef on Wednesday, the navy patrol boat, HMAS Albany, went to intercept it.

The first step for the crew of the 57-metre Albany, an Armidale-class patrol boat armed with machine-guns, was to ensure that the vessel was safe.

Ashmore Reef, 610 kilometres from Broome, is an isolated stretch of water which includes three small islands and a large reef shelf.

“Ashmore is not a very hospitable place,” a naval officer who has patrolled there said yesterday.

“It is hot. It is difficult operating conditions. When you intercept a vessel there, you expect them to be in difficult circumstances. They would probably be low on fuel, food and water. It isn't the best place to find yourself in any situation. If anything goes wrong, you're a long way from help.”

After intercepting the vessel, sailors boarded to ensure the boat and the people aboard were safe. They decided the boat was seaworthy and there was no need to transfer any of the suspected asylum seekers to the Albany.

The sailors remained on board the boat. One of the boat people spoke English and became the unofficial interpreter. The aim of the sailors was to monitor the boat – with the Albany remaining alongside – until those aboard could be taken to Christmas Island to be processed. But the plan ended with the explosion yesterday, at 8.15am, which was followed by a desperate evacuation operation.

The commander of Australia's Border Protection Command, Rear Admiral Allan du Toit, said yesterday the Albany had at all times followed standard operating procedures and three or four defence personnel were aboard when the boat exploded.

“We deemed the vessel to be safe and secure and seaworthy,” he said. “We also deemed that in the weather conditions that were prevailing, it was appropriate to hold them there until the transport means of moving them to Christmas Island arrived on the scene.

“The passengers themselves are checked to make sure there is no issue of safety for either our personnel or the people on board The [defence force] personnel are a constant presence from the moment we interdict the boat to the moment we move them on board our vessel.”

The overall command of interceptions falls to Border Protection Command, which combines a range of departments and agencies including officials from customs, defence, immigration, environment and police.