AFP was told doomed asylum seekers were on their way

October 20, 2013
Natalie O'Brien


Australian authorities were warned that people in Melbourne and Lebanon were helping to organise boatloads of Lebanese asylum seekers to travel to Australia, weeks before a boat sank off the coast of West Java, killing dozens of people including many women and children from one Lebanese village.

Lebanese community leaders in Australia have said the Australian Federal Police and the Australian embassy in Beirut were alerted to the operation after it was discovered the voyage was being falsely ''advertised'' in Lebanon as a two-storey ship, which had cabins, restaurants and lifejackets.

The Lebanese community was very concerned potential passengers were being told it was a safe way to reach Australia and that they would be given visas on arrival. Manal Hamza.

Fairfax Media has been told a senior community member met with two AFP liaison officers in Melbourne in early August and revealed the names of the people in Melbourne who were part of the operation. Advertisement

However, at an Operation Sovereign Borders briefing on Friday, Immigration and Border Security Minister Scott Morrison said it was not true the government had been alerted.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the allegations made regarding the AFP's inaction before the September tragedy are serious and need to be investigated.

''When important information like this can be left unattended to, the government's claims of caring for refugees' welfare at sea are brought into question,'' she said.

Up to 120 people, mostly from the Middle East, were on board the ill-fated boat that sank on September 27. Twenty-eight bodies, many of them women and children, were recovered but 22 remain missing presumed drowned.

Lebanese columnist and author Joseph Wakim said there had been many stories of predators luring desperate Lebanese villagers with promises of visitor visas to Indonesia then a ship to Christmas Island. Mariam Hussein Khader.

He said families from the Akkar region of northern Lebanon with nothing to lose and everything to gain had become the perfect prey, in the hope of a future life in Australia.

''Their voices of desperation drowned out the voices of reason by their Australian relatives over the phone, discouraging them, warning them that there is no such ship - it is a suicidal fishing boat,'' Mr Wakim said.

It was the first fatal asylum seeker boat incident since Tony Abbott became Prime Minister. But it is not known if there have been any other incidents in which boats had made distress calls or had to be rescued.

The Abbott government has gagged all government agencies from revealing any information about boats in distress. However, Mr Morrison said on Friday there had been no ''serious'' incidents since.

AFP Commissioner Tony Negus told a media briefing earlier this month five people had been arrested in Lebanon in relation to the people smuggling operation.

Mr Negus said the arrests were not necessarily made after information was supplied by Australians and they were still working ''to see whether there are any Australian links''.

Michael Kheirallah, the chairman of the Lebanese Community Council in Victoria, said that during a visit to Beirut in August, he had met with the Australian ambassador to Lebanon and discussed the people smuggling operation. ''I told him the word was spreading around and people were selling things ready to come to Australia,'' Dr Kheirallah said.

He said he also identified the poor and isolated villages in the north of Lebanon that were being targeted by the people smugglers. Many Lebanese people in Australia were aware of the operation and pleaded with their relatives not to get on the boat.

Melbourne man Ali Taleb, who lost his sisters and 11 nieces and nephews, says he also tried to warn people about the boat. He was desperate to stop his sisters getting on the boat but he said they followed their husbands.

One Lebanese man, 23-year-old Khaled Canaan, realised the danger when he saw the boat in Indonesia and refused to go on the journey. A Lebanese news site reported that he asked his father for money to return to Lebanon.

The Sydney-based sister of a man who survived the sinking said her brother had been tricked into the journey. Youssra said she found out that her brother Ahmad was trying to make the journey only after the shipwreck.

When her family rang to tell her of the tragedy she found out that her older brother had taken out a bank loan of $10,000 to finance the trip on the understanding it would be repaid after Ahmad got a job in Australia.

Ahmad is safe but now Youssra's family will have to sell the family home to try to repay the money. She said it could take her brother his whole life to pay back the money.

Death found those looking for a new life

Wrapped in her beautiful wedding gown, Manal Hamza, 19, posed happily. The photo of the young bride published on a Lebanese news site, was taken shortly before she and her new husband, Khader Mustafa Darwish, left their village in the north of Lebanon hoping to start a new life together in Australia.

Khader had apparently lost his job in a restaurant due to the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon, and they were hoping things would be better in Australia.

By a stroke of fate, they were separated in Indonesia when Khader was arrested and detained during a police raid. News reports said that Manal did not want to stay alone in Indonesia, so she went with the other women and children from her village and boarded the boat.

Survivors from the shipwreck have reported that Manal drowned while cradling one of the babies of her fellow passengers.

Another man from the village of Qabeet, Hussein Khodor 44, his wife and their eight children were also on the boat.

Hussein had sold his small poster shop in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli to pay the $80,000 cost of smuggling him and his family to Australia where he hoped to build a better life. He managed to swim to safety when the boat went down. His wife and children all died. He has returned to Lebanon a broken man.


Back to