The following piece was published 26 August 2013, SBS World News Australia Radio.
By Ildi Amon
Australia's border protection services are coming under fire amid claims they're taking too long to respond to the distress calls of asylum seeker boats.
It comes after a baby died and eight others are missing -- presumed dead -- after an asylum seeker boat sank near Christmas Island last week.
But authorities say they have limited resources and must analyse the veracity of emergency calls before responding.
The Department of Immigration says about 1000 asylum seekers have died at sea en route to Australia since 2001.
Former Australian diplomat and author of books on safety of life at sea, Tony Kevin, says in some cases, it's a result of Australia eroding the time-hallowed rescue at sea obligations.
He says cynical Australian authorities spend too long analysing the credibility of distress calls with sometimes fatal consequences.
"The problem is being compounded because some of the boats coming down have used mobile phones to signal that they're in distress when it's not necessarily so. So you might say it's a case of crying wolf too often. Unfortunately the wolf does sometimes come."
Tony Kevin says the same type of credibility test would not be applied to yachts or other non-asylum boats which flag distress.
But Chief Executive of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, Michael Pezzullo, told Sky News this isn't true.
"Any suggestion that we treat persons on the basis of ethnicity or their legal status as asylum seekers with quote disdain which is the word he used, is offensive. It's repugnant. We do not do that. As I've indicated in our statement we go through these processes very methodically. We look at all the evidence. There are a lot of distress calls that come in. Some of them frankly have to be treated with a degree of analysis so that we can both zone in on where we think the vessel might be so we don't send an asset off to the wrong area and indeed test its credibility. That's not treating people with disdain. That's just doing our job."
Mr Pezzullo says some asylum calls are attempts to get Australian vessels close-by so they are rescued by Australian vessels instead of a merchant vessel heading north to Indonesia.
But Mr Kevin says hours can be lost verifying emergency calls in a process he's described as a lethal game.
"The issue is what box you put a distress call in. Do you put it in a box that says this needs to be responded to immediately in which case we call on our resources and go very quickly to the rescue because we're nearby anyway protecting our borders? Or do you put it in a box that says this needs to be checked out, we need more time to see if this is genuine, or we need more time to see if we can find a northwards travelling merchant vessel to pick up this ship? In other words it's a very complicated game. And what I'm suggesting is we need to re-order our priorities. We need to remind ourselves that safety of life at sea, response to distress calls at sea, comes first - even if there's a possibility that they might be unfounded distress calls."
Pamela Curr, from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, says she would like to see evidence of unfounded distress calls.
She says the boat journey from Indonesia is perilous, often in boats that are unfit for the conditions.
And Ms Curr says there's no excuse for rescue attempts that come too late, often when people are already in the water.
"Java is 197 nautical miles from Christmas Island. It is very clear that people are travelling in a trajectory from Java to Christmas Island. So it's not the entire ocean that needs to be surveyed."
But Mr Pezzullo says the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service has limited resources and it needs to be sure it's responding to verified emergency vessels first.
He says even though it's a challenging environment it's not overwhelmed by the number of boat arrivals.
"We're stretched, that's true. But the vast majority of people are brought to Christmas Island safely."
The Coalition has a plan it hopes will stop the boats if it's elected to government.
One of these is sending boats back to Indonesia.
But Mr Kevin says he can't see how this policy could be put into place.
"If we do it on the high seas it's an act of piracy. If we do it in Australian waters we have to escort them to Indonesia. We have to get Indonesian permission to get them into Indonesia ports, which Indonesia has made clear would not be forthcoming. We then have the option of leaving them at the 12 mile international waters territorial sea boundary. If we do that and leave them there with petrol in their tanks they're likely to burn and explode their boats, creating a rescue at sea situation to which we would have to respond. If we leave them without petrol they're likely to just simply drift away from shore because the prevailing currents drift away from shore, so they're likely to drift back into international waters creating a search and rescue obligation for Australia."
Mr Kevin says, as a result, there's no way the Coalition's policy can be implemented in a safe way.
And he says it's likely to result in even more deaths at sea.
"When asylum seekers think they're in the process of being towed back or turned back or coerced back to Indonesia they will take desperate, sometimes suicidal measures to resist that. There's plenty of history of this. And this puts both themselves at risk and our navy personnel at risk. There are also risks to the Australia-Indonesia relationship, which is a very important diplomatic relationship for Australia. There are risks to the morale of our Navy commanders and crews who know that they are acting in a way contrary to their maritime traditions and maritime rescue at sea laws, so it's minefield we should not be voluntarily going into."