Boat tragedy emphasizes people smuggling risks

AM Archive - Tuesday, 23 October
Reporter: Rebecca Carmody

LINDA MOTTRAM: The risks taken by would-be refugees paying passage to Australia on leaky people smugglers' boats have been highlighted by the sinking of a vessel off Indonesia, with the deaths of more than 350 people on board. Most of the dead were Iraqis, some were Afghans, according to the International Organisation for Migration based in Geneva, which also says that about 40 people survived. And it says that the calamity happened last Friday, and that details are only now coming to light.

Rebecca Carmody reports:

REBECCA CARMODY: An 8-year-old boy is among those to survive the shipwreck but he can hardly be seen as one of the lucky ones, as 21 members of his family are now missing off the island of Java. Four hundred and forty-one people set out on the rickety Indonesian fishing boat early on Thursday. It was massively overcrowded. Such was the concern, that 21 people asked to be put ashore. They were left on a tiny island in the Java sea.

Speaking from Geneva, IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy says those on board were mostly Iraqis, but there were also passengers from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Algeria.

JEAN-PHILIPPE CHAUZY: What we do know is that in the early hours of Friday morning, I think it was four o'clock local time, the captain reported that the boat was having major engine problem and the boat was taking water. And after that we note that the boat sank very, very quickly. Survivors say about 10 minutes time. And 44 survivors spent hours in the sea before being rescued by local Indonesian fishermen on Saturday morning.

REBECCA CARMODY: So, how many people are thought to have died?

JEAN-PHILIPPE CHAUZY: Well, 421 people boarded the ship, 21 people got off, 44 survived. So, that means that 356 people must have died during the shipwreck.

REBECCA CARMODY: What have the survivors told you about conditions aboard the vessel?

JEAN-PHILIPPE CHAUZY: Well, they haven't told us much for the moment because they're obviously very traumatised. But it's safe to assume that the boat - probably an Indonesian fishing boat - was over capacity. Four hundred and twenty-one people on board this type of boat is obviously far too many.

REBECCA CARMODY: Survivors have told IOM officials that the captain asked them to scoop water out of the boat however, it was filling so quickly, their efforts were wasted.

Jean-Philippe Chauzy says it's safe to assume that Australia was their intended destination.

JEAN-PHILIPPE CHAUZY: Well, for the moment I am not sure whether they were that specific but that being said, we know that every year that you've got thousands of irregular migrants from the Middle East transiting through Indonesia. We know that these people are on their way to Australia. So it's safe to assume that these people were probably on their way to Australia. Though as far as I know at the moment we haven't had one survivor tell us that specifically but no doubt we will in the coming days.

REBECCA CARMODY: The Australian government's been trying to send a very tough line against people smugglers, and warning people not to come to Australia, particularly after the Tampa incident. Is it clear then that that message just isn't getting through?

JEAN-PHILIPPE CHAUZY: Well, I mean, the evidence - we don't know whether the message is getting through but it didn't get through to that group of people who basically, you know, boarded a boat, were probably heading towards Australia, and we know the boat sank with 356 people on board. So, the message is probably getting through but it didn't get through to that group of people, that's for sure.

LINDA MOTTRAM: Spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration in Geneva, Jean-Philippe Chauzy. Rebecca Carmody with that report.

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