Refugees drown off Indonesia

23 October 2001

More than 370 asylum-seekers are now known to have drowned after their boat sank off the Indonesian island of Java.

It left Java last Thursday with 421 aboard, and is thought to have been heading for the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

Soon after sailing, 21 of them asked to get off.

The BBC reported that the boat's engine failed in heavy seas and it was over-run by waves and sank the following morning.

The ABC reports that only 23 other passengers were rescued by local fishermen, including an eight-year-old boy who lost 21 members of his family, a spokesman for the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said.

The spokesman said the passengers on the boat, which had sailed from the island of Java on Thursday, were overwhelmingly Iraqi but included Iranians, Afghans, Palestinians and Algerians.

The destination of the boat was not known, but thousands of illegal migrants travel in rickety vessels in the seas around Southeast Asian countries in search of refuge in richer countries.

Geneva diplomats who track illegal migration said the vessel was almost certainly on the way to Australia.

Attempts to reach Indonesian naval officials in Jakarta and a key base in the East Java capital Surabaya in the early hours of Tuesday were unsuccessful. Officials from the national search and rescue agency also could not be reached.

Later in the day the boat's captain reported that his engines had stopped and that the vessel was taking water. It sank within 10 minutes, the survivors reported.

The IOM said the survivors were picked up on Saturday - apparently after spending many hours in the water - and were being cared for in the Indonesian town of Bogor, near the capital Jakarta.

The organisation said it was sending a team of four people, including a doctor, to Bogor to provide medical and counselling assistance to the survivors.

In August, a Norwegian freighter rescued more than 400 mainly Afghan migrants after their vessel ran into problems off Java. Australia refused to take the refugees after they had forced the freighter toward Australian waters, triggering a storm of international criticism.

Australia has taken a similarly hard stance against several other boats carrying hundreds of mainly Muslim refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Australia denies policy contributed to deaths

The government's tough stance on asylum seekers had nothing to do with the drownings, Defence Minister Peter Reith said.

Reith said he had no official information from the Australian Defence Force "because we've not been involved".

He told Channel Seven the government's tough tactics with asylum seekers could not be blamed for the tragedy.

"Our tougher tactics don't go to the safety of vessels in any way.

"As to the safety of vessels, that really is a matter for Indonesian port authorities and safety authorities," he said.

"We are tough when it comes to saying that people are not coming to the Australian mainland but we've been very compassionate in dealing with any boats that have come into our jurisdiction in terms of ensuring that they were seaworthy, that people have medical attention," he said.

"Look, we have bent over backwards to do the right thing by people but we are not in favour of people jumping the queue," he said.

Opposition leader Kim Beazley said earlier that the deaths pointed to a failure of Australia's policy to deter illegal immigrants.

Beazley, speaking in Brisbane, said he had no details of the deaths but added: "If that has occurred it's a major human tragedy. It is a very sad thing indeed."

He said the Howard government had failed to achieve an agreement with Jakarta that would help halt the flood of asylum-seekers passing through Indonesia on their way to Australia.

AAP Published on Oct 23, 2001

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