Asylum seekers drowned off Indonesia

PM Archive - Tuesday, 23 October, 2001
Reporter: Ginny Stein

MARK COLVIN: But first tonight, 44 survivors of what may be the region's worst asylum seeker tragedy are recovering the town of Bogor, south of Jakarta. They're all that's left of a group of 414 people who are believed drowned off the Indonesian coast. Authorities believed the boat sank in just 10 minutes after leaving the province of Lampung in Sumatra.

In all, 350 mainly Iraqi asylum seekers are believed to have drowned trying to make their way to Christmas Island. Although the tragedy happened last Friday, first-hand stories are just beginning to emerge.

A short time ago I spoke to our correspondent ini Bogor, Ginny Stein. What kind of access have you been able to get to these survivors Ginny?

GINNY STEIN: Well we were able to meet with them. They are being housed in a private hotel where a number of other people from the Middle East have been now based there for some months as well. They are offering some support to the survivors.

When we went there this morning, they are very badly beaten up. They're very distressed. There isn't one person there who isn't covered in cuts and abrasions from trying to hang onto driftwood in the ocean to stay alive.

There were very emotional scenes as people returned from hospital but there were very worrying signs as well with people saying we just don't know whether family members are alive, whether they are still at the hospital or whatever.

I spoke to one man who was holding his two-year-old child in his arms. She had just come back from the hospital. She was the youngest survivor there and this is what he had to say through a translator.

SURVIVOR [THROUGH TRANSLATOR]: I hold the baby on my back of my neck. Even four or five times she went down. I got her out and hold her on my shoulder.

GINNY STEIN: Now he was just one of the many people there who had harrowing tales. We were also able to speak to others who had been in the situation -- same situation in the past. That they had gone on boats attempting to make the journey to Australia but their vessels had sunk. One group, their vessel had sunk a few months ago.

They all say the same thing, that they are committed to continuing the journey, that there is no life for them here in Indonesia where they've been waiting, many of them up to two years. But they will make that journey again.

MARK COLVIN: So despite what Philip Ruddock says, these people have not been deterred at all by the Government's campaign?

GINNY STEIN: Not at all. It's very clear that even when you speak to people who have been so horrifically traumatised by what has gone on that, you know, hundreds of people died around them, they still say they are left with no choice, that they want to make the journey. They are prepared to take that risk to go to Australia.

They are able also to sprout off that they know what Australia is doing, that Nauru is an option. They know where that is. They say that conditions there aren't very good but there is a hope that if they get that far they still believe they may either get to Australia or finally to a third country.

MARK COLVIN: So it's not a question of ignorance? These are people who've either read or seen on television or heard on the radio some of the message that the Australian Government's been trying to put across?

GINNY STEIN: Absolutely. They know very well. They say that you know, we have heard from UNHCR representatives, from representatives from the International Organisation, all telling them what Australia's position is. But they say their lives are so desperate, they have no future, that they cannot go back. This is what one man had to say to me about that.

SURVIVOR: I want to live in Australia and Australia's the place I want to go. Yes. I don't have a place. I left Afghanistan because my life was in danger. I cannot go back. Even the Taliban has said I cannot go back and this is the only way I can go.

GINNY STEIN: So many people have died. People you know. Would you still be prepared to make that journey today?

SURVIVOR: Yeah. I sat by myself with my eyes while the boat was sank in the ocean. Here no-one is helping us. Untied Nations organisation should help people. Needy people. But they are doing nothing, just giving two times food. That's not a life. Everyone wants education, life and work. They cannot give us.

Even now Australia's not accepting people. They are moving people to PNG, Papua New Guinea and Nauru and the life is worse than here, I know it. I ask the person [indistinct]. He was for one run there and he told me the miserable condition of there.

MARK COLVIN: One of the survivors of the boat sinking off Java, talking there to our correspondent Ginny Stein. Ginny just basic numbers. Is it now clear exactly how many people did survive and how many did drown.

GINNY STEIN: Well we're hearing that the figure that I heard last night at 370 is the accurate figure of how many people died. That 44 people survived the sinking and that a further 21 people who had asked to be put ashore before the vessel set off saying that this vessel is indeed unseaworthy. That's it. That's the total numbers of people who were involved. That shows the extent of the catastrophe.

MARK COLVIN: And in the absolutely short term, what will happen to these people now? Will they be taken in by the UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration? Is anybody going to do anything about them or do they just stay in this hotel until they can find another boat to bring them towards Australia?

GINNY STEIN: The various representatives are saying quite simply we're here to offer emergency assistance. We will give food and clothing. We will give counselling for this. But they're saying nothing else at this stage.

With the group that went back, there are you know, there were scores of other people who have been waiting many many months. Some people say up to two years that are in the same position. So it's not just this group of survivors that is the case at hand, but the many hundreds of others.

MARK COLVIN: Ginny Stein in Bogor, Jakarta.


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