UNHCR interviews asylum seekers over forced return to Indonesia
George Roberts reported this story on Tuesday, March 18, 2014 08:05:49
CHRIS UHLMANN: The United Nations refugee agency has conducted in depth interviews with a group of asylum seekers about what happened when they were turned back to Indonesia by Australian authorities.
Last night the ABC's 730 program aired accounts from passengers on the boat, and new footage of their forced return to Indonesia. The UNHCR office in Geneva says it has raised concerns about the policy and demanded information from the Australian Government.
But while the Federal Government attempts to maintain secrecy over Operation Sovereign Borders, more questions about what happened to two men on a boat towed back have been raised, as Indonesia correspondent, George Roberts, reports.
GEORGE ROBERTS: On the fifth of February, Australia's largest customs ship, The Triton, was rolling through the ocean swell, towing an orange lifeboat towards Indonesia. The asylum seekers inside began filming the journey as they had done on their way towards Australia.
ASYLUM SEEKER (translated): On our boat we were 36 people, including a pregnant woman and a one year old child.
GEORGE ROBERTS: They say they'd nearly made it to Christmas Island but were intercepted by an Australian border patrol and kept onboard the Triton for seven days.
A contact on Christmas Island told ABC News, during that time two asylum seekers were transferred to the island for medical attention, wearing wristbands numbered 879. Australian authorities used the same numbered wristbands to identify those seen in the lifeboat footage.
ASYLUM SEEKER 2 (translated): The wrist bands show the boat number 879. It is a blue band with people's number.
GEORGE ROBERTS: On the trip back to Indonesia Iranian asylum seekers discussed two missing passengers.
ASYLUM SEEKER 3 (translated): Ali and Hossain had a fight with them?
ASYLUM SEEKER 4 (translated): They sent them back.
ASYLUM SEEKER 5 (translated): Did Ali and Hossain fight with them?
ASYLUM SEEKER 3 (translated): They had a fight with them so they sent them back.
GEORGE ROBERTS: Just two days earlier the Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, had told Macquarie radio there'd been no boats for six weeks.
RAY HADLEY: And that's the first time that's happened in January, what, for six years?
SCOTT MORRISON: That's right. I mean, we've had two persons transferred in the past couple of days for medical reasons, but no boat has got here.
GEORGE ROBERTS: He was separately quoted as saying that one man had a heart condition, but gave no further details.
On reaching Indonesia, passengers from the lifeboat claimed there'd been an altercation on the Triton. A 48 year old Pakistani man, who doesn't want to be identified after fleeing threats from Islamic militants, was on the boat.
ASYLUM SEEKER 6: One young guy, around, I think, looks like 28 years old, Iranian, and one old man. Then they told us they are… they bring them to the doctor. But we never see them again, these two people.
GEORGE ROBERTS: Other asylum seekers among the dozen spoken to by 7.30 gave similar stories, but it's impossible to prove or disprove without an official account of events on board the Triton.
Both the Minister's office and his department have refused to say what happened, where the two men are, or what their condition is. A spokesman for the Minister gave a statement saying:
SPOKESMAN FOR SCOTT MORRISON (voiceover): The Government rejects unsubstantiated allegations of inappropriate conduct made against our Navy and Customs and Border Protection personnel.
There are clear rules and guidelines to govern behaviour and use of force in relation to the conduct of operations by Border Protection Command.
GEORGE ROBERTS: The United Nations Refugee Agency has also been attempting to get details about Operation Sovereign Borders. In January, the UN agency asked the Federal Government for information about boat turn-backs, but has told the ABC it's yet to receive an official response.
The Government says it has ongoing dialogue with the UNHCR on a range of matters. The organisation's Geneva office has confirmed that UN staff have interviewed asylum seekers involved in Australia's turn-back operations in order to get their account of what went on.
The asylum seekers from the boat featured on 730 last night say they were questioned from 9 am until 8 pm one day last month on topics including how close they got to Australian Territory.
This is George Roberts in Jakarta reporting for AM.
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