Hundreds die tied up to hulks

Date: 23/07/2000

The Sunday Age

Hundreds of terrified refugee men, women and children on three Indonesian fishing boats that disappeared in storms off Western Australia may have been tethered to railings or locked away below decks when the vessels sank. The frightening picture is painted by Immigration intelligence officials who believe the boats were in such bad shape that the refugees were doomed from the start.

The vessels are believed to have been overloaded and unseaworthy when they left Indonesia in late March, heading into an ocean dark with thunderstorms.

The refugees, most of them from Iraq, are believed to have drowned.

Officials who interviewed worried relatives in Australian detention camps said it was common practice for gangs smuggling asylum seekers to Australia to rope their human cargo to stop them rushing to the sheltered side of a vessel in bad weather. "They had so little freeboard that if everyone moved to one side, that could be enough to turn them over," one said.

Because of the secrecy surrounding the smuggling operation, the strict enforcing of privacy laws by Australian authorities, and the fear in refugee communities of Iraqi intelligence officers operating in Australia, little has emerged about the disaster.

But Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock has revealed that deaths due to smuggling people to Australia were on a bigger scale than the recent discovery of 58 dead Chinese nationals at the British port of Dover."The facts are, there was a vessel, which we believe had 220 people on board, that left Indonesia and hasn't been seen again," Mr Ruddock said.

Refugees are often at the mercy of ruthless pirates who make a fortune by ferrying them to Australia.

But since the introduction of harsher penalties, crews have taken to abandoning helpless refugees to the mercy of the sea.

"The smugglers get their money - they don't care if the people drown or not," said Graham Thom, of Amnesty International Australia.

By piecing together common threads in the stories of refugees who survived similar journeys, immigration officials have charted the likely fate of those aboard the three vessels that did not make it to Australia.

The biggest of the three boats presumed to have sunk turned back for repairs after hitting a reef on the west coast of Java about March 24.

It was carrying about 200 people, and witnesses said it was still in very poor condition when it sailed again for Christmas Island in rough weather on March 25.

The boat vanished, and there has been no word of survivors.

A second boat, thought to have been carrying about 80 people, also vanished with all aboard after sailing from Kupang, in West Timor.

Another left Java about the same time with 60 to 80 aboard. It sank, but some of those aboard may have been rescued. "You can imagine that you'd get 70 or 100 nautical miles out, the motor breaks down in bad weather, the vessel broaches and disappears under a wave - it could all happen very, very quickly," an official said.

"We believe the asylum seekers were tied to the railings to stop them rushing from side to side.

"There have been suggestions that people were tied below decks to keep them below the centre of gravity so that the boat did not become unstable. If the boat went down they had no chance of getting out."

Because no distress signal was sent out, no search was launched.

"We've had a couple of instances ... where they would bring two boats over and the crew would jump off just as they were getting close to Australian waters and take off, leaving their customers to fend for themselves," the official said.

"Some of these people had never been anywhere near a boat in their lives. It's possible that the captain and crew did that 100 miles out - left them to their own devices."

One boat arrived early this year with the unaccompanied luggage of three people aboard. "The owners of the luggage never made it to Australia. Those aboard the boat were not particularly cooperative. The only conclusion you could come to was that somewhere on the trip they went overboard."

Many of the refugees spent years in camps in Iran, Syria and Jordan before selling up everything to buy a dangerous ticket to freedom.

Usually they are flown to a country such as Malaysia and put aboard vessels similar to inter-island ferries that are often operated by the same people responsible for piracy in the region.

They are then dropped on Java and travel overland to a port where fishing boats are waiting to take them to Australia. Often the refugee boats are floating wrecks.

Refugees who survived say they were appalled when they saw the condition of the boats, and some used scarce money to buy lifejackets.

But in their naivety, many Iraqis doubt the horror stories. The are aware of Australia's million-dollar searches for lone yachties in the southern ocean, and believe the government would have done something or revealed evidence of the sinkings if they had really happened.

But the government has stonewalled requests from refugees and from the families of boat people who have not heard from their relatives and who want to know if they are drowned or safe in detention centres.

Immigration officials would not identify those they believed were behind the operations, saying that would give too much away.

But they conceded that some were based in Indonesia, and were also behind the international drug trade, prostitution and piracy.

"And we believe there are Australian links, people who live or who have lived in Australia," an official said.

The lack of information has spread alarm through migrant communities aware of family and friends trying to get to Australia on refugee boats.

"Many people are worrying. They do not know where their relatives are," said Mr Haider Aljuboory, a spokesman for the Australia Iraq Association.

He said the community was reassured when the initial stories were not followed up, and people decided they were not true. "If 300 dogs or cats died in one day the media would cover it and the government would go and find the bodies," he said.

Mr Aljuboory said Iraqis in Australia frequently received calls from overseas inquiring if friends or family members had arrived safely. But it was hard to get information out of the detention centres.

"People in the detention camps are not allowed for a few months to ring their families," he said.

Requests for help and information have also flowed into Amnesty International.

"They are worried that they (relatives) were on a boat that sank because they haven't heard anything from them," said Amnesty's refugee coordinator, Graham Thom.

He said Amnesty was concerned that the Privacy Act might be misused by the Immigration Department to stop people getting in touch with their families.

"We've had a number of cases where it's taken people months and months of letters from Amnesty and others to the department to find out anything," said Mr Thom.

"They'd be Australian citizens who provided passports, photographs of themselves and their families.

"All they want to know is whether their brother or wife or daughter or whatever is alive or dead. That's all they're asking and we're asking, and it's taken them months to establish whether they're alive or not."


Thirty boats, carrying 1852 asyulum seekers, intercepted between December1, 1999, and May 16, 2000.


Fifteen Sri Lankans drowned off Christmas Island in July 1999 when their boat went down in a storm.


Since July, 1999, 193 people have been charged with people smuggling. 100 boat skipper are awaiting trail or sentencing in WA and th NT.


Jail sentences of up to 20 years and a fine of up to $210,000.

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