Despair drove us, say refugees
By Lindsay Murdoch, Andrew Clennell, Craig Skehan and David Humphries
Sydney Morning Herald
24 October 2001

The United Nations had agreed they were genuine refugees, unable to return home for fear of persecution. But after being assessed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Indonesia, they had waited for years for another country to agree to take them in.

A spokesman for UNHCR in Jakarta said that 24 of the more than 350 asylum seekers who drowned off Java on Friday afternoon had already been granted refugee status in Indonesia but had been unable to find a third country to accept them. Six of the survivors had applied for refugee status.

A survivor of the sinking, who asked not to be named, said he had been living in Indonesia for more than two years waiting to be accepted by a third country such as Australia.

"I have proved I am a refugee," he said. "How can I stay in Indonesia without anything? You can see we are desperate."

A spokesman for the UNHCR said: "They decided on the risky trip because they were in depression and they had lost faith in the UNHCR."

Up to 70 children were among the more than 350 asylum seekers who died after the fishing boat, crammed to double its capacity, capsized and sank south-west of Java on Friday afternoon. It had set out with 421 people on board.

About 120 people were left adrift in the ocean after the boat capsized, according to government reports, but only 44 of those survived after being plucked to safety by Indonesian fishing vessels, after spending about 15 hours in the water.

The people smuggler behind the ill-fated journey is alleged to be an Egyptian national named Abu Quassey, who is known to Interpol and intelligence services in Australia. Sources said he operates out of Jakarta.

The vessel left a port called Cipinas near Jakarta last Tuesday before travelling to Lampung, on Sumatra, to pick up the asylum seekers, who were bound for Christmas Island.

It was unclear last night if the boat had sunk in Indonesian waters, as the Prime Minister, John Howard, said yesterday.

A spokesman for the Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, said there were reports that the boat had sunk close to Java, but he could not confirm if the accident happened in Indonesian or international waters.

The Government admitted yesterday that increased penalties for the crews of people smuggling vessels were leading them to take on bigger loads and less experienced crew, because they were having trouble attracting people to do the job.

The International Organisation for Migration spokesman in Geneva, Jean-Philippe Chauzy, said the message of the Federal Government's tough stance on boat people had obviously not got through to those people on the boat.

A spokesman for the Indonesian Navy, First Admiral Franky Kayhatu, said Indonesia had no plan to mount a rescue operation in the area where the survivors were picked up.

"The boat sank outside Indonesia's water, near to the Christmas Island. I haven't got details of the accident, but it's clear that the migrants were saved by fishing boat," he said.

Almost all those on the boat were Iraqis who had lived for several years in Iran. There were also Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis and Algerians.


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