Extracted from: UN Wire - News 23 October 2001

Hundreds Die As Ship En Route To Australia Sinks

A ship full of asylum seekers bound for Australia sank off the Indonesian island of Java over the weekend, drowning 350 people, mainly from the Middle East, and leaving just 44 survivors. According to Agence France-Presse, the incident is considered to be the worst disaster involving Middle Eastern asylum seekers who use Indonesia as the last step to reach Australia (Pathoni/Tjahjadi, AFP, Oct. 23).

According to the International Organization for Migration, most of those on board were Iraqis, but there were also Afghans, Iranians, Palestinians and Algerians aboard. The Associated Press reports that an 8-year-old boy who survived lost 21 of his relatives.

IOM spokesman Jean-Phillipe Chauzy said the 44 survivors were rescued by fishermen Saturday after spending hours in the ocean. Witnesses said the ship sank very quickly after it began to take on water. "According to survivors, the boat sank in 10 minutes," Chauzy said. He added that the IOM has sent a team of doctors and counselors to care for the survivors, who are being held in the Indonesian town of Bogor on the island of Java (Naomi Koppel, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 23).

According to the Indonesian navy, the boat left Sumatra Friday, presumably bound for Australia's Christmas Island, carrying hundreds of passengers who had paid between $800 to $1,900 each for the dangerous voyage (Reuters/Yahoo! News, Oct. 22).

A counselor with the IOM said many aid workers knew those who died because they had spent up to a year in Indonesia waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. "It has touched each one of us," said IOM counselor Maha Bodemar. "I see one little girl, maybe 8 years old, who survived, while her parents and siblings died. ...We're all just devastated by it." The majority of those who died, she said, were well-educated "computer programmers, engineers, doctors" who knew the risk of the journey. "We met with them and explained the dangers, but of course these are very desperate people and they feel it is the only way out for them and their families," she said. "I guess when they're that desperate, there's little one can do" (Canadian Press/Ottawa Sun, Oct. 23).

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Kemala Ahwil said the survivors are recovering in a refugee camp. "They are traumatized," Ahwil said (Chris Brummit, AP, Oct. 23).

Another shipload of 220 mostly Afghan asylum seekers arrived off Christmas island over the weekend. Under Australia's strict new immigration policies, most asylum seekers arriving by boat are refused entry to the country, and transported to isolated Pacific islands such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Hundreds of asylum seekers have died in recent years after their vessels sank (Reuters/Yahoo! News).

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