Vomitous and terrifying: the lifeboats used to turn back asylum seekers
March 2, 2014
Indonesia correspondent for Fairfax Media
The bulbous orange lifeboat wallowing in the shallows off the coast of Central Java is an unlikely looking weapon - but it's proving highly effective in Australia's military campaign against asylum seekers.
To the people forced to travel in them, though, it is a vomitous and terrifying experience.
''Inside the orange boat it was closed, hot and very dark,'' says Omar Ali, an Egyptian asylum seeker now in temporary detention in an old office building in Cilacap, Central Java.
''No light. Very hot. When the driver opens the door, the water comes inside. We're sick. Everybody sick; there was no air.''
Earlier this week, Ali and 27 other young men from Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Nepal, Bangladesh and Egypt, became the seventh group of asylum seekers ''turned back'' from Australian waters to Indonesia since December, and the third to have been returned in a $46,000 disposable lifeboat.
Their boat, like the other two, was steered by the Indonesian crew who had been in charge of the wooden vessel provided by the people smugglers that was intercepted near Christmas Island. Also like the others, Indonesian authorities have no idea what to do with the ugly orange vessel that has landed uninvited on their shore.
The experience of the latest group of lifeboat returnees suggests the Australian authorities are refining their technique. In the first return in mid-January, the asylum seekers said they were tricked and lied to, then at the last minute given written information about what was happening to them as they were pushed off.
On the second return in early February, one asylum seeker used a phone camera to film the experience of being towed in an orange lifeboat behind an Australian Customs boat, Triton.
In this latest incident, there was no such opportunity. The interaction was kept to a minimum and mobile phones were taken away.
After intercepting the wooden asylum boat in the water near Christmas Island at 1am on Friday, February 21, Australian crews wearing Customs and Border Protection blue uniforms initially tried to recommission the old wooden boat to return them to Indonesia. The engine would not start. After several hours and several mechanics had come to try, the Australian officers abandoned the task.
The asylum seekers were transferred to the Customs vessel - perhaps MV Triton, though they do not know the name. As they were loaded on board, officers were ''pushing one by one with hands behind our back'', Ali says, showing on his friend how their arms were bent into a painful position.
Any objections or requests for food and water were shouted down, no discussion entered into.
''He says: 'Don't speak. Shut up. F--- you','' Ali says, the others nodding. One man, Khazim Mohammad, from Iraq, was lying sick on the boat: ''The [Australian officer] said, 'You're joking. Liar, liar' … and grabbed him and pulled him.''
The Indonesian crew have told Central Java police that the wooden boat was then ''blown up''. They cannot say how this happened, but speculate on a bomb.
On board the large Customs ship, interaction between crew and asylum seekers was minimal. Once their details were taken and entered on a computer, the men were given wristbands with numbers on them.
For about three days, they say they were kept below decks.
''Inside the big ship, no sun, no air. We don't know if it's night or day. We can't sleep; loud noises,'' says Ali.
They were fed once - cheese sandwiches - and given a cup and told to fill it up in the bathroom to drink. ''For two days we went on hunger strike.''
The Indonesian crew was kept in a separate part of the ship.
On the Customs patrol boat, Ashrof says someone searched their belongings, and all valuables - money, phone, SIM card - were taken. He does not know who took them. No phones means that, unlike on other ships, there is no video footage of their experience.
The next move, on Monday morning, was to the orange lifeboat. It was the first time they had seen it and the transfer was done in sight of land.
''The soldiers brought [us to] the orange boat … and closed the door and said to the driver of this boat … 'Go to that island','' Ali says.
Again the Australians would not answer questions. The Indonesians - who spoke almost no English - said it was Christmas Island. Ali did not believe them.
But there was no chance of turning back to the real Christmas Island. The crew, though experienced sailors, had never seen anything like the orange blob they now captained, and there was not enough fuel to go anywhere except to that island on the horizon.
The island, it turned out, was Java.
The lifeboats are small and inside they feel smaller. They are dark and airless with only a couple of small, high windows. Having 28 on board would have felt crowded - not everyone could have a seat, though the nameplate says it is rated for 55 people.
''No air inside and no airconditioning for the orange boat. We are very sick. We have no oxygen. We are very sick,'' says Ali. ''It's like animals. Animals [cannot be treated] like this.''
There was water on board and muesli bars.
The journey lasted only about three hours before the boat ran aground in huge seas on a rugged bay near the village of Kebumen. They were 30 metres from the beach and the surf was high, but there was little choice but to jump.
''We jumped from the boat. We are at the beach, ocean high. We arrive and drift, arrive and drift. We think we will die. We think we will die. We can't swim,'' Ali says.
Finally on the beach the exhausted men were confronted with a steep, slippery slope to climb before a local farmer found them and called the police.
The crew is now in custody being questioned by police under people smuggling laws for taking people out of the country illegally and then, at the insistence of the Australian Customs and Border Protection, back into it. The asylum seekers are bound for detention, although they don't know where.
The fate of the big orange lifeboat is just as uncertain. The recent arrival of these odd-looking vessels has puzzled Indonesian officialdom. The first to land, near a remote beach called Ujung Genteng, in mid-January, is in the custody of the Indonesian navy. The second landed in a tourist spot, Pangandaran, in early February and is now being looked after by water police at Ciamis. ''My commander has not told us what to do,'' a local officer says.
The latest arrival landed on Monday and by Wednesday had been stripped bare by scavengers - engine, seats, supplies - anything movable has already gone. The police seem to think the boat itself evidence, but have no idea what to do with the remaining shell.
For the moment, it still lies tied up and wallowing incongruously on the beach.
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