Iraqis, Afghans perish on way to Australia
The Jakarta Post
24 October2 001

Bogor: Over 350 passengers, mostly Iraqi asylum-seekers, drowned when their boat capsized in the Java Sea, and 44 survivors were in poor health after spending 30 hours in the sea over the weekend.

One of the survivors, identified only as Jawad, a 37-year-old Iraqi, said he saw that more than 300 people had been trapped in the boat's upturned hull when it went down.

"They went down with the boat, and I assume they all drowned at sea," Jawad, who was being treated at Husada Bakti Hospital at Cibinong, Bogor, told The Jakarta Post.

Others drowned after floating in the water for hours.

Jawad added that he had lost his wife Naima, 30, and his two children, Abab, 9, and Abas, 5.

He was saved by an Indonesian fishing boat after clinging to flotsam for two days in the Java Sea.

The 19-meter by five-meter wooden boat, which was carrying illegal immigrants to neighboring Australia's Christmas Island, sank on Friday. But news of the catastrophe was only made public on Monday by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva.

IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy was quoted by Associated Press as saying that the ship had sailed from a fishing port in southern Sumatra on Thursday. Later that day, 21 passengers had asked to leave the boat and were put ashore on an Indonesian island.

Early the following morning, the captain announced that the engine had stopped and the ship was taking in water. "The boat sank in 10 minutes," Chauzy said.

Local IOM chief Richard Danziger said that according to accounts from survivors of last week's tragedy there were 421 men, women and children on the boat when it left Indonesia -- the last stepping stone for asylum-seekers bound for Australia.

Of the 44 survivors, 18 are still in hospital.

"The people are in very bad shape. They spent 30 hours in the water before being picked up," Danziger said, as quoted by AFP.

"An eight-year-old child was the only survivor of a family that had been in a group of 21 passengers. It is horrific."

He said the passengers were mainly Iraqis, with a handful of Iranians, Afghans, Palestinians and Algerians. The crew of the boat were thought to be Indonesian but this has not yet been confirmed.

"Four or five boats foundered this year near the coast, with one or two sinking, but there has not previously been a tragedy on this scale," Danziger said.

"As far as I know it's the worst (such incident)."

Danziger said he believed quite a number of women and children were on board. "I understand the youngest was a baby, three months old."

He had no information on the condition of the boat that capsized but said people-smugglers often used fishing boats, which were often badly overloaded.

According to the head of the Bogor immigration office, Amiroel CH, the immigrants came not only from Bogor but also from other areas in the country.

"Maybe, they had made an agreement to meet at a certain location before fleeing the country. Thus, they were migrants from various parts of the country and not only those staying in Bogor," he said.

These illegal immigrants, Amiroel said, had wanted to go to Australia.

"Australia is a dream country for refugees. They had hoped they would be accepted by Australia, while Indonesia would have served only as a transit point for them," he said.

Thousands of migrants head for Australia every year from Southeast Asia. Leaky, unseaworthy vessels overloaded with pas sengers and cargo routinely leave Indonesian ports without work ing radios or sufficient life jackets.

Another boatload of about 220 asylum seekers, most of whom said they were from Afghanistan, arrived off Christmas Island on the weekend.

In April 2000, up to 350 asylum seekers were feared drowned off northern Australia, although their deaths were never confirmed.

In December of that year, unconfirmed reports said that two boats carrying up to 163 people sank in bad weather en route to Australia's Ashmore Island.

The Australian government has recently tried to crack down on asylum seekers from the Middle East as well as from Central and South Asia.

Australia has demanded that Indonesia do more to stop the migrants, and has refused to let many land on its territory, transferring them to neighboring Pacific island states for processing.


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