Shipwreck survivors claim they were boarded at gunpoint

PM Archive
Wednesday, 24 October, 2001
Reporter: Ginny Stein

MARK COLVIN: But first, in Indonesia. The survivors of the shipwreck which resulted in the loss of more than 350 lives, say they were ordered on to the vessel at gunpoint by Indonesian security forces. They've also told how the people smuggler who arranged the journey, stood armed with a pistol, with police, to make sure that those who'd paid more than $4,000 a family got on board.

The UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] in Jakarta says a full investigation is needed. The UN's country director, Raymond Hall, says he too has heard about the allegations.

Correspondent Ginny Stein spoke to the survivors who revealed the story in Bogor. I spoke to her a short time ago. Ginny, just what is this tale that they're telling?

GINNY STEIN: People are saying that in the middle of the night they were taken down to a port, they can't say exactly where, they weren't aware of it, it was dark, they could not see the sign. But from there they were put on small boats and taken out to the ship which was moored some way out to sea. When they got there, what they saw was a boat that was very, very, low in the water. They realised it was horribly overcrowded and some did not want to get on board, but they were forced at gunpoint to do so.

On land, people also knew about what was happening. There were about 30 police there and they said that they did not want to go on either. At that stage, police it's claimed, beat them and forced them at gunpoint to get on the boats, and there police were in those boats where they had about 25 people at the time being taken out, and they were forced to get on the vessel.

MARK COLVIN: And what about this, the people smuggler?

GINNY STEIN: Well the people smuggler, he was standing there. He was armed with a pistol. He was seen to have beaten two people. I spoke with one of the survivors, and this is what he had to say.

SURVIVOR: (Translation) They had guns, they were preventing anyone leaving. They forced them on to the boat.

MARK COLVIN: Well, Ginny, that's fairly clear and simple. Is that repeated by a lot of the survivors, that story?

GINNY STEIN: It was the same story that was told by virtually everyone there today that we spoke to. We spoke to about 10 people. They had the same story.

We also spoke to others who had survived attempted journeys to Australia. They were in the same position. They said police at that point also ordered them on to the vessel. It's a story that's been repeated a number of times.

MARK COLVIN: So there have been a number of cases like this, where they think this is really not the kind of ship that I want to be on, it looks unsafe, and they just get herding on at gunpoint?

GINNY STEIN: Or kept on board the ship. That's what we heard today, that there were people on board a vessel and they weren't allowed off, because the police had kept them there until the vessel was ready to push out to sea.

We have heard other stories over time, of involvement by military and police in pushing vessels out to sea. These reports today seem to confirm those allegations that are being made now.

MARK COLVIN: How are these survivors responding to Philip Ruddock's offer today to offer 40 extra places for the recognised refugees?

GINNY STEIN: In some respects they saw it as a good move, some people did. They said that, you know, maybe this is the beginning of a shift in the stance by the Australian Government in their attitude towards asylum seekers, that perhaps they are now being seen as human beings, and the Government may be responding in that way as a result of this disaster.

But at the same time, there was a very angry response, as this religious leader showed when he asked for a right to be able to tell people in Australia what he thought.

RELIGIOUS LEADER: (Translation) Does this mean we have to shut up our mouth about 375 victims, just for the sake of only 40 people?

MARK COLVIN: So there's still a lot of anger there. What about the UNHCR? I've already mentioned Raymond Hall, the UN's country director, what are they doing about investigating this case?

GINNY STEIN: They say that they have heard reports about it and Raymond Hall is saying that a full investigation is needed.

RAYMOND HALL: We have 450 recognised refugees in Indonesia at the moment. And just to give you a measure of how difficult it is to re-settle them, we've had a total of 31 who we've been able to get to the departure stage this year. So 31 have left this year, out of 450.

And we really do need a better international effort to address this problem. And maybe if one good thing comes out of this terrible tragedy, it will be to mobilise governments in that respect and really to highlight the need to address this problem.

GINNY STEIN: Many of the people say that they're driven to desperation to get on these boats and go to Australia. In that sense the international community's culpable isn't it? They're the ones who aren't taking these people?

RAYMOND HALL: Well the boat of course, is a mixed bunch of people. It includes people who have been rejected, rightly rejected for refugee status. It includes people who've never applied for refugee status. So it's a mixed group of people, some of whom are possibly recognised refugees, some of whom had their cases been concluded, would have been recognised, and people who would have been, and had been rejected. So it's a very mixed group and I think you'd have to break that group down.

But certainly where people who are recognised as refugees, if they feel sufficiently desperate to continue their journey under such perilous circumstances, and this would not be the first time that we've had recognised refugees continuing their journey, then I think this is a clear indication of a breakdown of the international protection system to protect these people.

GINNY STEIN: How many people on board the ship that went down, how many were recognised refugees?

RAYMOND HALL: We don't know yet, because we're still piecing together the information, as you know yourself, from a very traumatised group of people. We're beginning to now, today we're drawing up more comprehensive lists, cross-checking it with our own files. It's not the crosschecking bit that takes time, it's getting the accurate information from a small group of survivors.

Figures have been mentioned - 30 was mentioned yesterday as possibly recognised refugees, including their dependents of course. So far we've been able to verify, in fact two, but there may be more.

MARK COLVIN: Raymond Hall, UN country director in Indonesia, talking to Ginny Stein.

Finally, Ginny, a lot of people who hear this story are going to be very, very, angry, particularly about the conduct of the Indonesian police. To whom, should the anger be directed? Is this a matter of Indonesian local police acting completely out of the vision and control of Jakarta, or would Jakarta have known about this?

GINNY STEIN: Well, it - talking to Raymond Hall, he said that he believes it's police at a local level that is involved, that in fact there is a degree of cooperation from Jakarta, but at a local level this is what is going on. He wants a full investigation because he says without that, we can't really say who is responsible.

MARK COLVIN: Ginny Stein, and whether it's action or inaction, you would have to say that the central government must have some responsibility there.


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