Australia ignored boat rescue call, claims survivor

September 28, 2013 - 2:42PM
Michael Bachelard, in Cikole, Indonesia and Bianca Hall

One of the asylum seekers on the boat that sank off the coast of Java killing more than 20, claims the Australian government knew where they were, but didn't come to their rescue.

Traumatised survivors of another boat sinking tragedy off the coast of Java insist Australian rescue authorities knew their exact location for more than 24 hours before they sank with the loss of an estimated 59 lives.

“I called the Australian embassy; for 24 hours we were calling them. They told us just send us the position on GPS, where are you,” one survivor, Abdullah, a man from Jordan, said.

“We did, and they told us, 'OK, we know … where you are'. And they said, 'We'll come for you in two hours'.

"And we wait two hours; we wait 24 hours, and we kept calling them, 'we don't have food, we don't have water for three days, we have children, just rescue us'.

"And nobody come. Sixty person dead now because of Australian government.”

As dawn broke on a fine day over the beach near the village of Cikole in the south of Java, the rescue effort began again, involving the search and rescue agency Basarnas, the Indonesian army, and local people.

One man lost eight children and his wife. He saw the bodies of his wife and two of his children, but did not find anyone else.

“I just found my wife and one small child, two years old, and one six years old. And I didn't find anything else. There were eight children,” he said.

“We made a mistake. The children didn't make a mistake, just rescue the children,” Abdullah said.

Another man lost his wife of just three months.

New details also emerged of treachery on the part of the boat's Indonesian crew, whom survivors said had abandoned ship after receiving their payment.

But there was no formal response immediately available from the Australian government to claims authorities had been alerted, after a clampdown on how information about asylum seeker boats is released.

Under new protocols introduced under the government's "Operation Sovereign Borders" regime, calls to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority are referred to Customs and Border Protection.

A spokeswoman for customs said the department was not able to release any information before Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's weekly briefing on boat arrivals, which is scheduled for Monday.

Mr Morrison's media advisor did not return calls or answer texts or emails on Saturday.

The confirmed death toll from the sinking has reached 21, search and rescue authorities have confirmed, from a boat said to be carrying 81 people.

Police said most of the dead were children under 15 years old who could not swim.

Of the bodies found on the first day of the rescue, survivors said 13 were of children — most of them very young.

The men said there were 35 children of 81 on the boat, most of the passengers hailing from Lebanon. However, there were eight passengers from Eritrea (of whom five died), six from Iraq (one died) and one Iranian family from which only one child survived. Only 22 survived altogether.

The groups from different countries brought together in Jakarta by people smuggling agents, to whom they had paid $10,000.

Abdullah said they had fled their countries because of internal strife and threats to their lives, in the belief that Australia was a blessed place that would welcome them.

Adjunct Commissioner Warsono from the Agrabinta Police said another boat was waiting offshore for the crew. They quit the wooden vessel carrying the refugees, leaving them to fend for themselves.

Commissioner Warsono said the small wooden fishing vessel had disintegrated in high seas. It was full of people from Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and an African country.

“The children who died are both boys and girls. I think they died because they could not swim,” Commissioner Warsono said.

“The boat was a complete wreck. The crew escaped and we don't really know how many passengers there were.”

Reports from the Naharnet news network in Lebanon, where many of the victims originated, said that one Lebanese man had escaped from the sinking boat by swimming to an island - but he believes his eight children and pregnant wife were all killed.

Hussein Khodr called people in his home village of Qabeit "and told them that the boat sank at dawn, when waves destabilized the vessel," said Ahmed Darwish, the head of Qabeit's municipality.

The Lebanese National News Agency reports that the families of the migrants had been frantically contacting loved ones abroad in order to determine the fate of those on board.

They have also urged the Foreign Ministry to contact Lebanese embassies in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia to verify the sinking.

Victims of the sinking said their people smuggler's name was Abu Saleh, and that he had been arrested.

Most of the Lebanese victims had come from the northern region of Akkar.

Earlier today, Prime Minister Tony Abbott would not answer questions as he left a Grand Final breakfast in Melbourne, and calls to Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's office have gone unanswered.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told Sky News on Saturday morning that the loss of at least 21 lives was distressing.

"Now we do have operation sovereign borders underway, we are working very constructively with the Indonesian Government and it's very important our efforts with the Indonesian Government are going to be successful," he said.

Mr Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will go to Jakarta on Monday, for what will be Mr Abbott's first overseas trip since the election.

But Mr Cormann said the government did not want the trip to be defined only by the asylum seeker issue, which has raised diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

"I'm confident that while this is one issue that of course we have to continue to deal with constructively, that all of the other very important parts of the relationship, in particular our trade relationship, will be appropriately high profile," he said.


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