Fifty-five people are believed to have lost their lives, among them women and children.



Authorities decided to abandon the recovery of their bodies, saying resources were needed elsewhere.


Kristina Kukolja reports.


At around the time maritime authorities first registered the boat as being in trouble, 13 lifeless bodies were sighted in the water.


The search for survivors was called off after three days, but there’s no ongoing search for bodies.


The Australian Tamil Congress says it understands the need to redirect resources to assist other boats in Australian waters which may need help.


But spokesman Bala Vigneswaran says the bodies of the asylum-seekers who died in the Indian Ocean should be brought to shore.


“When they have ten naval vessels in the area, at least one could have stayed with the bodies and tried to recover them as long as it was safe to do so. We know lots of boats have sunk and some of them were saved. We need to find out how that happened and at least stay with them as a mark of respect for those bodies, not abandoning them. Sometimes it’s hurting because some of the communities really respect the dead and also to give the dignity and respect for the dead.”


Bala Vigneswaran says it’s not known whether any of the asylum-seekers on board the boat was of a Tamil background.


But he says in the absence of any concrete information, refugee communities will have questions about who the passengers were and why the boat sank.


And Mr Vigneswaran says some of them will be distressed, and they’ll be looking to the federal government for answers.


“The recent arrivals are originally from a Sri Lankan Tamil background or Afghan Hazara and also Iranians. We don’t know who they are. We don’t know exactly what happened, but when the community is concerned and when some people keep asking questions about who they are and what happened, naturally we’ll look at the government for answers. When that information is not forthcoming, naturally there is stress and pressure on community representatives to find out and people will make assumptions and guesses about what happened and who they were, but the simple answer is that we don’t know who they are and what happened and we are waiting for the government’s declaration of who they are or the country of origin.”


But Professor Donald Rothwell, from the Australian National University in Canberra, says he doesn’t believe Australia has a legal obligation to recover the deceased asylum-seekers’ bodies.


The international law expert says the global convention governing search and rescue operations in Australian waters defines obligations towards vessels in distress and their survivors.

“The convention is very comprehensive in that it basically divides the world’s oceans into what are called search and rescue regions. Australia’s search and rescue region encompasses about one tenth of the world’s ocean’s surface which makes Australia’s region one of the largest in the world. As a result of that Australia has an obligation to coordinate search and rescue within the Australian search and rescue region. That coordination in Australia is conducted by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) which requires AMSA to deploy government assets such as customs vessels or naval vessels, or to alert merchant ships in a relevant search and rescue region area to respond to vessels in distress and to come to the aid of persons in distress and, obviously, survivors in the case where vessels have sunk at sea.”


And on the question of whether this incident could result in legal action against Australia over possible claims it didn’t act soon enough to rescue the asylum-seekers, Professor Rothwell says:


“For an international legal issue to arise it would really be dependent upon the flag state of the vessel which has sunk to actually raise its concern and to explore its options for international litigation. Now, most of the vessels that are appearing on Australia’s coastline are those that are coming at the moment from Indonesia or Sri Lanka, so it would really be up to the Indonesian and Sri Lankan governments to raise their concerns with Australia if they somehow felt there was some form of premature abandonment of search and rescue operations for their own flagged vessels that are in distress.”


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