Human rights groups condemn Australian government over boat people

ABC Asia Pacific Radio
14 December 2000

Human rights organisations have accused the Australian government of callous indifference to the disappearance of up to 163 boat people sailing from Indonesia.

Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, refused to launch a full-scale search for the two missing boats, saying the incident highlighted the government's warnings to would-be illegal immigrants.

The Refugee Council of Australia says the government's failure to do everything possible to search for survivors demonstrates a lack of compassion.

Bernadette Nunn has this report.

NUNN: Australia's Coastwatch organisation says informers had alerted it to the departure of two boats from Indonesia bound for Australia, both carrying more than 80 Middle Eastern passengers.

Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, says both boats appear to have sunk in the wake of Cyclone Sam off Australia's northwest coast.

Mr Ruddock says a Japanese tanker reportedly picked up four survivors from one boat when it went down in waters between Indonesia and the Ashmore Islands, while the other boat has disappeared.

RUDDOCK: What it suggests I think is that there are less experienced smugglers who have been involved in this particular enterprise...and in fact the advice that has been given to me, was that more experienced people were in fact postponing travel arrangements because of nature of the weather.

NUNN: The Minister said the incident justified Australian government warnings to deter illegal immigrants, refusing to call a full-scale air and sea search for other survivors.

RUDDOCK: I think the assumption could very safely be drawn that the foundering would have been more likely in Indonesian waters.

NUNN: The Australian Government did spend an estimated two million dollars searching for French yachtswoman, Isabelle Autissier a few years ago - after a prolonged and expensive rescue mission for British sailor, Tony Bullimore.

The Refugee Council of Australia's executive director, Margaret Piper.

PIPER: I find it very sad that every effort is not being made to establish whether or not there are more survivors from this tragic event. It seems to be sacrificing the rights of individuals, and the safety and our responsibility towards individuals in order to further a political policy.

NUNN: Coastwatch Director of Corporate Communications, Leon Beddington, confirmed the government has not ordered a formal search.

Instead, a Coastwatch plane is on the lookout for any signs of wreckage on its scheduled flights in the area.

BEDDINGTON: We haven't been asked for a formal search...we've been asked to keep an eye out for anything which could lead us to determine where these people might be, if they have left, and something's befallen them on the way.

NUNN: Mr Beddington says authorities are trying to confirm the location of the four survivors reportedly rescued by a passing tanker.

BEDDINGTON: The critical thing is that we haven't been able to verify the information about the four people being picked up. If they were found there might be more chance of knowing where they were found and doing some calculations from that.

NUNN: The Refugee Council says if there are four survivors, there could well be more.

PIPER: The fact there have been survivors would give hope that there could be more...or could well give hope that there could be more. And that every effort should be made save these people's lives, because everybody's life is as valuable....any one person's life is as valuable as any other person's life.

NUNN: The International organisation, Human Rights Watch, today accused Australia of systematically diluting its responsibilities towards refugees in the last decade.

Ms Piper says the government's lack of concern for the 163 missing boat people will only reinforce that international perception.

PIPER: There has been concern expressed internationally for some time about Australia's commitment to its human rights obligations. This would simply add to that concern.

(First broadcast 14/12/2000)


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