Fishing boat was intercepted, refuelled, repaired and steered back: asylum-seeker

Peter Alford
Australian
January 24, 2014 12:00AM

A PAKISTANI asylum-seeker who was returned with 35 others to West Java on December 27 claims two Australian navy officers steered their boat towards the Indonesia coast for 14 hours.

Ali Muhammad says the passengers were attempting to reach Christmas Island when their Indonesian-crewed fishing boat was intercepted, refuelled, repaired and steered back.

If Mr Ali's information is correct, this is the fourth group of asylum-seekers giving witness accounts of being turned back to Indonesia by Operation Sovereign Borders since mid-December.

Australian authorities refuse to confirm any incidents but The Australian understands at least five and possibly seven boats have been turned back.

The Australian has spoken to two passengers who claim to have been on the December 27 boat, and yesterday 30-year-old Mr Ali, a Sindhi from Karachi, gave a detailed account of his journey.

It cannot be confirmed from his explanation that two Australian ships accompanying the wooden boat entered Indonesia's 12 nautical-mile territorial waters.

But he said the passengers knew they were close to the coast when the RAN steersmen left their boat, because the water was dirty and strewn with debris.

Mr Ali claimed the passengers were deceived by Australian officers, who told them soon after boarding: "We have called the Australian government to send a boat to take you to Christmas Island." Unlike accounts from the other three known turnbacks, he does not allege harsh treatment.

At the initial contact, Mr Ali said the boat was boarded by 16 to 20 sailors armed with pistols.

After some shouting when the boat was boarded, he said, the asylum-seekers were treated "respectfully". He said the sailors did not unholster their sidearms and there was no rough handling or physical coercion, except for one incident on the return journey.

When they realised they were being returned, two males jumped overboard and were picked up by a tender from one of the navy vessels and "the sailors threw them back on to our boat".

Mr Ali said their boat set out from Indonesia on December 22 and had been sailing for about 40 hours when the Indonesian crew said the steering was damaged and they were out of fuel. The captain used a satellite phone to call for Australian assistance; two "big boats" with gun turrets arrived at the scene shortly afterwards.

During the next 24 hours the Australian sailors brought four or five jerrycans of diesel to refuel the fishing boat, took passengers' details and sent a medical officer to check the two women and a small girl aboard, who complained of illness.

Unable to fix the steering equipment, the sailors took part of the assembly back to one of the warships for repair.

About 4am the next day, two navy officers taking two-hour turns helmed the boat back towards the Java coast for 14 hours. There were about eight other Australian sailors aboard during that time and they kept all but three of the asylum-seekers below decks; two women and a girl were allowed on the deck.

After the officers handed the wheel back to the Indonesian crew and left the boat by tender, it took about four hours to arrive near Sukabumi, West Java, when the crew fled.

After making the shore, the group of Pakistanis, Iranians, Bangladeshis and Afghans split up. Mr Ali and a companion made their way back to Cisarua, their starting point.

"This is the third time I have tried to get to Australia," Mr Ali said yesterday. "I nearly lost my life before. As soon as I got back here, I bought another lifejacket and (inflatable) tube. But my family has called me from back in Pakistan. They told me, 'Please don't try again'."

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