Families sue Australia over shipwreck asylum seeker deaths | News | DW | 17.06.2014
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Families sue Australia over shipwreck asylum seeker deaths

Families of asylum seekers killed in a shipwreck off Australia in 2010 are suing the government for not preventing the deaths. Australia's immigration minister labeled the lawsuit "shameful."

Fifty Iranian and Iraqi asylum seekers died when dangerous seas drove their rickety fishing boat to crash against jagged rocks off Australia's Indian Ocean outpost of Christmas Island on 15 December 2010.

Australian navy and rescue teams saved at least 39 of the more than 100 people on board.

But a lawsuit, launched by human rights lawyer George Newhouse on behalf of eight families, claims the government should have spotted the boat earlier, and that it failed to maintain a proper lookout.

"We believe that the evidence will show that the Commonwealth knew, or should have known, that there were vulnerable men, women and children that were on the high seas in a storm and took insufficient steps to look out for them," Newhouse said in a statement.

Newhouse said that once authorities realized the boat was foundering, the systems in place and operational life-saving vessels were inadequate.

He told national broadcaster the ABC that the government should have had a better rescue system at Christmas Island. Authorities at the time said they were not aware the boat was approaching the island because of predawn darkness and "extreme" weather conditions.

Residents try to help, in vain

Locals, who were woken by the screams of victims, gathered life jackets and rushed to the limestone cliffs to offer help, but the floatation devices were blown back onshore by strong winds.

It took an hour for the boat's engine to lose power, while the terrified group on board drifted. Their vessel then smashed apart on the rocks. Just one man managed to leap to safety.

A coroner inquiry in 2012 blamed people smugglers for putting people at risk in the boat, but criticized the government for a lack of rescue vessels on Christmas Island.

'Shameful' lawsuit

Australia's Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has described the lawsuit as "shameful and offensive," and likened it to suing firemen who save someone from a burning house.

Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison, right, with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, left.

"Frankly, I think this is a shameful and offensive claim to be making," Morrison told reporters in Canberra. "Sure, people have the right to bring cases to court - we are a free country - but they have to be accountable for the claims."

"This is like someone who has been saved from a fire suing the firemen," he added. Morrison defended the actions of the Labor government at the time; a conservative administration is now in power.

A refugee advocacy group pointed out that the families are not suing the Australian Navy or rescuers.

"It seems that the minister is not actually familiar with the legal case," said Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition.

"What the legal case is highlighting is the negligence of the Commonwealth and the complete lack of preparation or adequate rescue facilities or equipment on Christmas Island that could have avoided the tragedy," Rintoul said.

"If the minister was really concerned with safety of life at sea he would welcome the court case."

Controversial policies

Hundreds of people have died while making the often dangerous sea journey to Australia, although no boat has arrived in six months under the government's harsh new policies, brought into action since the election that brought it to power last year.

Boats are now turned back at sea, mostly to Indonesia, while those arriving are sent to detention centers in Nauru or Papua New Guinea, for processing and permanent resettlement.

jr/jlw (dpa, AFP)