First close-up look at a lifeboat the Abbott Government is using to stop asylum seeker boats
PAUL TOOHEY JAVA
News Limited Network
January 31, 2014 11:00PM
THIS is what awaits asylum-seekers trying to get to Australia on dodgy wooden smuggling boats - the gift of an air-conditioned, 90-seat lifeboat, and an armed escort back to Indonesia.
This is the first close-up look at one of the 11 lifeboats that the Abbott Government has sourced out of Singapore in its uncompromising fight to stop the boats - a fight that it appears to be winning.
The fully enclosed and submersible 8.5m x 3.2m survival capsule, fitted with safety belts, navigational equipment, life jackets, food, water and an inboard diesel motor, came ashore in remote Cikepuh, in West Java, on the afternoon of January 15.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott today described the pictures of the lifeboat aground in Indonesia as "rather arresting''.
But he wouldn't say whether the vessel was used by Australian authorities to send back asylum seekers.
Naval officer Edi Sukendi, based in Ujung Genteng, the closest point between Indonesia and Australia, got word from a forest ranger that an unusual vessel had crash-landed and disgorged an estimated 60 asylum-seekers, who immediately scattered into the jungle.
Sukendi, a naval operational with no boat of his own, asked a local fishermen to take him up the coast to Cikepuh to investigate. They found the orange capsule jammed on a coral reef within wading distance of shore and approached it cautiously.
"When we first saw it, we were very surprised," Sukendi said. "We were worried it might have explosives." He said they found discarded food and water bottles with Malaysian markings, and first assumed it had come from there.
Twenty men heaved the boat to the beach. It was not leaking but they were unable to start it because the keys were missing.
The boat was towed to the port of Pelabuhan Ratu and has been impounded by the navy.
Prime Minister Abbott's turn-back policy - along with the phone-tapping scandal - has caused intense heat at the highest diplomatic levels between Indonesia and Australia.
But there is no question the policy has sent a shock through smuggler and asylum networks, already reeling from Kevin Rudd's declaration of July last year that no one who arrived by boat would ever settle in Australia.
Cisarua, in central West Java, once the biggest catchment for Australia-bound asylum-seekers, is a shadow of what it was only seven months ago, when thousands of asylum-seekers were highly visible on the city's streets.
Ali Abbas Josh, 35, an Afghan asylum-seeker who came back to Cisarua last year for a second attempt after failing to make it to Australia by boat under John Howard, said people had lost hope.
"We agree the way to Australia has been closed," he said. "We accept that you have closed the way, that you won't take us if we come by boat."
Mr Josh said those remaining in Cisarua were the most desperate stragglers, who could not afford to pay smugglers. He said they had been abandoned by the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration.
From June 2012 to June 2013, there was a huge surge in the boats, when 25,793 people made it to Australia under the former government. Most of those were Sri Lankan and Iranians, who during that period came in an unprecedented rush.
Now, it is estimated there are only 20 Iranian families left in the area. Most have gone home or are scattered in detention centres across Indonesia, awaiting formal resettlement.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's office said in March last year, 68 per cent of people registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia were failing to do follow up interviews and were instead "opting to attempt to enter Australia illegally by boat. By December last year, that rate had dropped to nine per cent."
An Iranian husband and wife in Cisarua said they received a visit from three filthy and distraught Iranian asylum-seekers who knocked on their door on January 17, two days after the lifeboat came ashore.
They told the husband and wife they had made it close to Christmas Island in when they sighted an Australian Border protection Command vessel. At that point, they began scuttling the boat.
The Australians tried to pump the wooden boat but it was too damaged. They were then taken aboard the vessel where, according to this account, they spent 10 days cruising within sight of Christmas Island.
It was said there were adults, children and teenagers aboard.
They were fed and photographed. On the tenth day, they were ordered into the lifeboat. Some, according to the husband and wife, refused to enter the capsule and were physically shoved inside. They were given documents stating they were not permitted to enter Australian waters.
The Indonesian crew piloted the lifeboat, shadowed by a Border Protection Command vessel, until they arrived close to Indonesian territory.
When asked about the above report, Mr Abbott today said the government's border protection policies were helping stop the flow of asylum seeker boats.
He made reference to a prospective asylum seeker quoted in the report as saying the passage to Australia was now closed.
``Well, thank you sir, the way is closed ... and as far as this government is concerned never ever will it be reopened,'' he told reporters in Brisbane.
The Indonesian crew chose a sparsely inhabited jungle reserve, one of the most remote areas on the southern coast, to land the vessel.
The asylum-seekers - said to be mostly Iranian and Sri Lankan - told the husband and wife the Indonesians jumped out close to shore and handed the controls to an Iranian, who ran the boat into a coral reef.
They waded ashore wearing life jackets and spent two days wandering terrified in the jungle before a sheepherder directed them towards a road, where they grabbed minibuses and motorbikes to take them back to Cisarua.
Three people died while crossing a river in the jungle.
The boats have slowed dramatically but members of this particular group will not take no for an answer - the Iranian couple said their phones were now switched off and they were trying once again to get to Australia.
The lifeboat - believed to be the second so far sent to Indonesia - is understood to be one of 11 bought by the government for around $500,000. The Customs vessel Ocean Protector was expected to arrive off Christmas Island on Thursday with eight of the 11 lifeboats for boat people "turn around duty".
Australia is also being assisted indirectly by Indonesia, who despite the current political difficulties is staging its own crackdown.
An Indonesian intelligence source said agents were flooding known smuggling hot spots looking to break the industry from the inside by exposing military and police known to assist smugglers moving people to the coast and onto the boats.
"The belief is that many individuals in the military and police are involved," said the intelligence officer. "They are getting much more attention now. They are putting kuching (meaning cats, or spies) everywhere. If there is good control, the problem with Australia will stop."
News Corp heard a disturbing report from an Iranian asylum-seeker, who took the boat that sunk off Java on July 23, that his group had been escorted to the coast in 11 mini-vans by 15 plainclothes men carrying automatic rifles and pistols.
The asylum-seeker said the presence of the armed escorts - whom he believed were off-duty police or military - was unprecedented in the experience of most asylum-seekers, but showed how serious the smugglers had become as the way to Australia became harder.
Former air chief marshall, Chappy Hakim, who headed the Indonesian air force and has had decades-long ties with the Australian military, said Australia ought to work with Indonesia on the turn-back policy.
"Pushing back the boats is a small issue," he said. "But if your government is tackling issues alone, not negotiating first, then we have a problem."
It is not known what will become of returned lifeboats, but Corporal Sukendi said he'd gladly take the boat and use it to conduct patrols on his coast.
Back to sievx.com