Refugees mourn loved ones lost at sea
Barbie Dutter
24 October 2001
Daily Telegraph (UK)

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A GROUP of asylum-seekers, rescued after their dilapidated ferry sank in the Indian Ocean killing 360 people, told yesterday how they clung to wreckage as their families and friends drowned around them.

Around 400 refugees had crammed into an old Indonesian fishing vessel for the illicit voyage to Australia, but only 44 are known to have survived after the vessel capsized. Among them was an eight-year-old Iraqi boy who lost 21 members of his family.

The survivors spent around 20 hours in the water, clinging to fragments of wreckage, before being hauled to safety by fishermen. They were taken back to Indonesia, from where the rickety vessel began its voyage last Thursday.

"My family is dead. All my friends," wept one man at the refugee hostel now housing the survivors in Bogor, 40 miles south of Jakarta.

Sadeeq Razak survived along with his two-year-old daughter, but his wife drowned. "When the ship was about to sink, my wife, my baby and I jumped into the water," he said, speaking through a translator.

"I put my daughter on my shoulder and tried to cling to my wife, but a wave smashed us and we lost her." A 41-year-old Iraqi survivor, who gave his name as Musa, said: "About 14 people were trying to hold on to the same piece of wood.

"Slowly, one by one, they lost their grip and sank. We had no hope, but prayed that God help us." Most of the refugees were from Iraq, along with some Afghans, Iranians, Palestinians and Algerians. They included 70 children under the age of 12.

The boat, built to accommodate only 150 people, set sail from Lampung in Sumatra, after its passengers had paid hundreds of pounds apiece to people-smugglers for their passage to Australia.

Some refused to board after seeing the condition of the vessel, but most decided to go ahead as they had handed all their money to the smuggling gang.

Early on Friday, as it headed towards the Australian outpost of Christmas Island, the boat began taking in water and sank within 10 minutes.

Behram, a 46-year-old Afghan whose four brothers and three cousins drowned in the disaster, said: "The ship fell to the left side. We all rushed to the right side but the ship immediately sank.

"It broke into many pieces. Everybody was trying to hang on to a piece of wood." He said he was desperate to reach Australia because of the wretched state of his homeland. Afghans want a peaceful country where they can get food," he added.

Of those rescued, 18 were taken to hospital suffering broken bones, coral cuts and severe psychological trauma.

"The people are in very bad shape. It is horrific," said Richard Danziger of the International Organisation for Migration, which is providing food, medicine and counselling for the survivors.

He said several boats carrying asylum-seekers had foundered off the Indonesian coast, but the latest sinking was the worst known incident to date.

"The way the people smugglers pack these boats with far too many people, we've always been afraid that this sort of tragedy was going to happen."

Philip Ruddock, the Australian immigration minister, said the incident was "a tragedy of monumental proportions" but insisted the government would continue its crackdown on illegal immigrants.

He said: "It's most undesirable for people to be encouraged to come on boats to Australia and this demonstrates what I've been saying all along. It is extremely hazardous, it is life-taking and it ought not to be encouraged or accommodated."

In August, 434 refugees, most of them Afghans, were rescued from a sinking Indonesian ferry by a Norwegian freighter off Christmas Island.

They were stranded at sea for eight days when the government controversially refused to allow them to step ashore on Australian soil.

Most were eventually transported to the South Pacific nation of Nauru to have their asylum applications processed.

John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, has enjoyed a surge of support over his hard-line stance on asylum-seekers, an issue that is featuring strongly in campaigning for a general election next month.

Yesterday a political squabble broke out when Kim Beazley, the Labour leader, suggested the latest sinking pointed to a failure of government policy.

Mr Howard condemned Mr Beazley's comments as a "despicable attempt to score points", while at the same time unveiling a 65 million policy to step up coastal surveillance to deter unwanted "boat people".

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