Jason Clare, Australia’s interior minister, has had a busy few days.
Ever since a boat of asylum seekers capsized en route to Australia, he has been the public face of Australia’s government. In interview after interview, he has been the one updating news on the search – and telling people how the situation looks “increasingly grim”.
The latest deathtoll: 90 thought dead.
Clare has been assiduous, too, in virtually every interview to make a subtle but very deliberate point. When the boat sunk, it was “110 nautical miles north of Christmas Island, 109 nautical miles south of Indonesia”.
In other words, it was closer to Indonesia than Australia. If blame is to be apportioned, more should be directed towards the former country than the latter.
Explicitly, of course, there is no blame game. But, serious questions are being asked about the rescue and whether more could have been done earlier.
While the boat capsized and lives were lost on Thursday, the first call to Australia’s maritime safety agency came late on Tuesday night. Probably using a satellite phone, someone called to say the boat they were on, full of asylum seekers, was in trouble.
Straightaway, that tells you something about the sophistication of the people-smuggling operation that brings asylum seekers to Australia. Someone onboard each boat has a phone that works in the middle of the ocean. And, they know the right number to call.
But if those onboard this boat expected quick assistance, they were wrong.
Australian authorities did not have a precise location for the boat. They alerted their own people and Indonesia’s to be on the lookout, but that was all.
On Wednesday, more calls came in, this time giving a precise location.
“Turn back,” they were told. They did not.
An Australian spotter plane saw the boat but decided, from the air, that it did not need immediate help.
It was only after yet more calls on Thursday that a spotter plane sent back different information. The boat had capsized. People were sitting on the hull. Australian rescue boats headed for the scene.
But for almost half the passengers, it was already too late.
‘No boats, no sinkings’
There will be an investigation into whether the rescue was adequate whether there was enough communication between Australia and Indonesia and whether the latter is equipped for the major rescues Australia expects of it.
But that investigation will take place with most politicians in Australia still saying the real culprits are the people smugglers who operate the boats in the first place.
“No boats”, they argue, “no sinkings”.
People smugglers, though, are simply providing a service.
If there were no asylum seekers to pay them, they would not operate the boats.
Anything that “stops the boats” hits the boats’ customers, the asylum seekers, as well as their providers.
While stopping the boats might lead to fewer deaths at sea, it would also keep asylum seekers in the places they are fleeing: refugees have described that option to me as a fate worse than death.
Any solution then that succeeds in stopping the boats, needs to offer – in parallel – a realistic pathway for people to apply, from abroad, for asylum in Australia.
Without this, while a “solution” might stop the boats, it will not do anything to stop the overall suffering.