Asylum seekers' boat sinks in 10 minutes, killing 350
23 October 2001
(Breaking news)

AAP: Traumatised survivors told today how an overcrowded boat carrying them to Australia sank suddenly off the coast of Indonesia, drowning more than 350 mainly Iraqi asylum seekers.

Forty-four survivors of what could be the region's worst boatpeople tragedy spent up to 30 hours in the water before being rescued by Indonesian fishermen, aid officials said today.

A further 21 asylum seekers escaped the disaster, asking to be put shore on an island because they feared the boat was unseaworthy, said International Organisation for Migration (IOM) local head Richard Danziger.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the deaths were a tragedy destined to happen, but refugee groups blamed Australia's hardline approach to asylum seekers.

Aid and navy officials said shocked survivors had told of 421 men, women and children boarding the 19-metre boat last Thursday at Lampung in Sumatra. It's believed they were headed for Australia's Christmas island.

The boat sank the next day, going down in 10 minutes, survivors said.

'It was just like the film Titanic,' said a survivor at the Wisma Pala refugee camp in Bogor in Java, who refused to give his name.

'Once the problem started, the boat almost went down immediately.'

Bahram Khan, from Jalalabad in Afghanistan, said he had lost four brothers in the disaster.

'The hull sprang a hole. The mechanic could not fix it and the boat sank,' Khan said, adding that he had spent 20 hours clinging to a piece of wood before being picked up by Indonesian fishermen.

He said the refugees had paid $US4,000 ($A7,900) each for the journey.

Danziger said he believed quite a number of women and children were on board. 'I understand the youngest was a baby aged three months.'

Among those to survive was an eight-year-old child who lost 21 damily members.

'It is horrific,' said Danziger.

Of the 44 survivors, 18 were in hospital and the rest were recovering in Bogor.

'The people are in very bad shape,' Danziger said. 'They spent 30 hours in the water before being picked up.'

He said some of the survivors were suffering broken bones and bad coral cuts.

'But the psychological trauma is the worst,' he said of the victims, many of whom were too shocked or ill to speak.

Danziger said 21 passengers, fearing the boat was unseaworthy, had asked before the sinking to be put ashore on an island where they were still believed to be located.

The IOM said the boat was clearly overloaded.

It said the passengers were mainly Iraqis with a handful of Iranians, Afghans, Palestinians and Algerians. The crew of the boat was thought to be Indonesian but this was not confirmed.

'Four or five boats this year have foundered near the coast with one or two drowned but not a tragedy on this scale,' Danziger said. 'As far as I know it's the worst (such incident).

'We were waiting for such a tragedy to happen.'

Apart from those who disembarked on an island, 10 people had refused even to board the boat.

Criminal gangs with links to corrupt Indonesian authorities routinely pack hundreds of people into leaky fishing boats for the one-way run to the nearest Australian territorial waters, about 350 kilometres south of Java.

In April 2000, up to 350 asylum seekers were feared drowned off northern Australia, although their deaths were never confirmed.

In December of that year, unconfirmed reports said that two boats carrying up to 163 people sank in bad weather en route to Australia's Ashmore Island.

The Refugee Action Collective today said Australia's hardline approach was to blame for the deaths because it forced asylum seekers to take desperate measures.

'They are forced to use leaking boats, dangerous methods and use unreliable, criminal organisations to escape persecution,' said spokesman Simon O'Neill.

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