Boat rescue claims rejected as toll rises

Paul Maley & Peter Alford
The Australian
September 30, 2013 12:00AM

THE government has furiously denied suggestions it was slow to respond to the fatal sinking of an asylum-seeker boat off Indonesia, as refugee advocates predicted tough new family reunion restrictions would see a spike in the number of children on boats.

With the death toll from Friday's sinking off the West Java coast likely to pass 50, it emerged many of the Lebanese asylum-seekers aboard the doomed boat had sold their homes to fund their journey.

Four more bodies - three women and a child - from the accident were found yesterday, taking the established death toll to 25.However, about 30 people, including a large number of children, remain unaccounted for and on the third day since the disaster there was little hope among searchers of finding any more alive.

Twenty-six people, mostly men, survived. Four were admitted to hospital and at least one was in a serious condition. It is thought that about 81 asylum-seekers were on the boat, which broke apart off Agrabinta district in West Java at about 10.30am on Friday.

More than 60 of those aboard were Lebanese.

There were reports last night that corrupt Indonesian authorities were complicit in the tragedy, with the ABC quoting a survivor saying the passengers had been transported to the drop-off point by soldiers. "The army took us," one survivor said."The army was driving the cars."

Yesterday, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison denied claims from a survivor of the shipwreck that Australian authorities were called, and called repeatedly, on Thursday, the day before the boat went down."The government completely rejects allegations of a 26-hour delay in response to this tragic incident by Australian agencies," a spokesperson for the minister said."Suggestions Australian authorities did not respond to this incident appropriately are absolutely and totally wrong."

Mr Morrison also asserted in a press release on Saturday night that the Australians became aware of the boat's dangerous situation on Friday morning, hours before it broke apart in heavy waves less than 100m off the beach.He said Australian authorities received a phone call on Friday morning and the initial report placed the vessel 25 nautical miles off the Indonesian coast.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority's rescue co-ordination centre sent notification to shipping in the area, but a merchant vessel was not able to locate the boat, nor was a flight by a Border Protection Command aircraft.A duty officer at Basarnas, the Indonesian search and rescue agency, said his office first heard from AMSA at 8am or 8.30am on Friday. He would not provide a copy of the Australian advice.

Lebanese media reported that 24 of the dead were from the northern area of Akkar. According to the Bint Jbeil news site, they sold their homes to fund the trip. Many were from the village of Kabeet, one resident quoted as saying: "Our children fell prey to brokers and human traffickers. We sold our land so we could cover the travel costs. It cost over $90,000 and now they're dead in Indonesia's sea and we need as much money to bring their bodies back to Lebanon.

"Refugee advocate Jamal Daoud said most were from towns in northern Lebanon and had been driven to Australia for economic reasons. "My understanding is that because of the Syrian crisis there is a very bad economic crisis in Lebanon. There is about one million refugees in Lebanon doing a lot of the cheap jobs," Mr Daoud said. "The people-smugglers told them the easiest way not to divide families was bring them together because the Australian government would not allow you to bring your family."

Refugee Council chief executive Paul Power said the number of children on the boats had been rising for some time. "There's a growing concern that families may end up being separated long-term if they don't travel together," he said.The Coalition has reintroduced temporary protection visas for refugees that deny family reunion.

Greens leader Christine Milne yesterday called for an inquiry into the sinking and Labor leadership candidate Bill Shorten said the Coalition would soon run out of "three-word slogans".

The Australian understands Indonesian police have identified an Iranian, Umu Said, as the smuggler most likely to have organised the venture. The captain and crew made it ashore and are still at large.

Abdullah al-Qisi, a Jordanian survivor, claims he called Australian authorities at least 10 times last Thursday, pleading for rescuers to come and saying 35 children were aboard the badly leaking vessel. The boat was at sea for five days, three of those adrift with no motor, food or water.

At the time of the tragedy, according to Indonesian officials, Australian Customs vessel Triton was about 25 nautical miles south of Rote Island, in the eastern islands, picking up 31 asylum-seekers and three crew from a disabled boat that had been headed for the Ashmore Island area.AMSA notified Basarnas of the situation about 2am on Friday and Triton later entered the Indonesian search and rescue zone to find the Agrabinta boat.

Earlier, the Indonesians landed a group of 44 Pakistanis and two crew from a boat in trouble located south of the Sunda Strait on Thursday by HMAS Ballarat. Ballarat then sailed into the strait and rendezvoused with an Indonesian coast guard vessel which took off the 46 people and landed them at Indah Kiat port, Banten.

Mr Morrison, AMSA and Customs have refused to confirm these two separate operations.The Agrabinta boat appears to have launched from Banten and travelled through a southern portion of the Sunda Strait before moving east, first under power then drifting in the current along the West Java coast.\

Additional reporting: Lauren Wilson


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