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Broadcast: 24/10/01
Genuine refugees killed in drowning tragedy: UNHCR

The UNHCR’s Raymond Hall has been speaking with the survivors of the boat tragedy. Mr Hall says some of those who died had already been recognised by the United Nations as legitimate refugees, but the lack of a long-term solution for their future set them on their fateful journey from Indonesia. He is urging for a more burden-sharing arrangement among the international community.

Compere: Tony Jones
Reporter: Tony Jones

TONY JONES: And joining me now from Jakarta is Raymond Hall, the UNHCR's [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] regional representative.

Raymond Hall, what are the survivors telling you about this fatal journey and the ordeal that they went through?

RAYMOND HALL, REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, UNHCR: Well, what we're hearing from the survivors is obviously that they were on this very small vessel, which set sail on the Thursday last week and which began to sink on Friday, that most of them were drowned at sea.

We have the 44 survivors who've been brought back in to Indonesia.

Obviously, a number of things that we're picking up is how horrendously overcrowded that very small boat was.

We're also hearing, of course, about the mixed composition of this group of people which included people that we've never seen in Indonesia, cases who we've rejected for refugee status and also people who we'd in fact recognised as refugees.

So we're hearing at the moment from a still very traumatised group of people a number of things.

The picture is slowly emerging but it's not yet fully emerged.

TONY JONES: Now, do we know where they were from, for example, how many women and children were on the boat, those sort of things?

RAYMOND HALL: Well, we know, the initial reports, I think at this stage we've still got to treat the figures with a bit of caution because we've not been able to corroborate them yet.

We're hearing from the people themselves is there were about 150 women, 150 children and the balance would be men.

Seven women and five children have survived.

The rest are men who've survived.

And this is often, in previous experiences of this kind of thing happening, which takes us very much back to the 1980s with Vietnamese boat people, often the women and children are put under deck, the men stay on the main deck and, when the boat sinks, the women and children are the first to perish.

TONY JONES: You say you're getting information that some of these people were genuine refugees or had been processed by you and found to be genuine refugees.

Do we know how many of the ship's company or the boat's company were genuine refugees?

RAYMOND HALL: We've still got the whole process to go through of really matching names and getting information from very traumatised people.

An approximate figure that we've got so far, which does need corroborating, is that 30 people, it's been mentioned so far, may have been recognised as refugees.

And of course, while this is an immense tragedy for everybody concerned it's doubly tragic that people already recognised as refugees should feel desperate enough to have to try to move on under such horrendous conditions.

TONY JONES: Raymond Hall, why would people who've been already been processed and found to be refugees by the United Nations, why would they take such a terrible risk?

RAYMOND HALL: I think probably that relates to some of the mounting frustrations that recognised refugees in Indonesia have been feeling.

We've got at the moment 500 recognised refugees, who have been recognised over the last couple of years.

We have to find countries which will take them.

They're only allowed to stay temporarily in Indonesia.

They don't want to stay here and countries are not queuing up to take these people.

So far, just to give you the figures, we've had 61 people only accepted for resettlement and that's not for lack of trying.

And we've had 31 people who've left for other countries.

Recognised refugees get increasingly impatient at the lack of long-term solutions for them and this is really something at which we have been urging for months now should be addressed and which really has to be addressed as part of an international burden-sharing arrangement.


What is the Australian Government's position here?

Has the Australian Government agreed to take any of these people?

RAYMOND HALL: The Australian Government so far has not agreed to accept any people from this case load.

They've begun to look at a small number of people with close family links in Australia, without any commitment yet to accept those cases but they have begun to look at them.

But Australia has been very reluctant to accept people from Indonesia on the understandable grounds that this would simply attract more people to come.

But, nonetheless, I think if we're to get other countries, other governments, to take an interest in providing solutions for these refugees, Australia has to be part of an international burden-sharing solutions-oriented arrangement.

TONY JONES: Is there any suggestion in what you're saying that the Australian Government's refusal to accept any of these people as refugees in Australia, as part of our intake, has that had an effect on what other countries are doing or deciding to do with these same people?

RAYMOND HALL: Well, I think that, obviously, there is a relationship there.

I think it would be easier to get an international burden-sharing arrangement if all governments agreed to cooperate on this problem, including Australia.

I think Australia would have to be part of that.

Now, Australia has made offers in terms of accepting refugees from other parts of the world etc, so I don't want to say that there's been no positive offers on the Australian side.

Australia has been grappling with this problem and looking at ways of tackling it but we have a concrete problem of 500 recognised refugees here and we need solutions for them and I think that this tragedy that has occurred is, in part, due at least where the recognised refugees are concerned, to a lack of those solutions.

TONY JONES: Are you saying their state of mind, their desperation, was somehow due to this fact that no-one is taking them for resettlement?

RAYMOND HALL: I think they've seen themselves as being in a bit of a blind alley and they're seen their prospects further decrease.

After the World Trade Centre atrocity, refugees have gathered themselves that their own cases for resettlement would become more difficult and it would be more difficult to find countries willing to accept them.

So maybe on that basis as well, some of these people have, regrettably, decided to take the further risk of travelling on under extremely perilous circumstances and that really is something that has to be addressed.

TONY JONES: Raymond Hall, thank you for taking the time to talk to us tonight on Lateline.

RAYMOND HALL: You're very welcome indeed.


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