Forced on to death boat
The Australian
By Don Greenlees, Jakarta correspondent and Megan Saunders
October 25, 2001

INDONESIAN security personnel forced asylum-seekers at gunpoint to remain on board a dilapidated fishing vessel that later sank, taking 353 people to their deaths, according to survivors.

The Indonesian forces, in collaboration with people-smugglers, oversaw the boarding of asylum-seekers in a bay in south Sumatra and later intervened when some of the mainly Iraqi passengers had second thoughts about the voyage on the wooden vessel.

About 10 people refused to board the overcrowded and unseaworthy ship and paid bribes of $US400 ($787) to be allowed to remain on land. Later, when the vessel called into an island, another 24 disembarked and refused to go on.

Survivors of the disaster, interviewed by The Australian yesterday, also said the captain of the ship had his own misgivings about the capacity to put to sea with 421 people. Authorities say the 19m vessel could safely carry fewer than 100.

They said the captain was given $US1000 by the smugglers, on top of the $US1500 already paid, to set to sea.

The revelations about active security personnel involvement came as Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Hasan Wirayuda, announced plans for an international conference to deal with illegal migration.

Citing concerns over a further influx from Afghanistan because of the military campaign against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, Mr Wirayuda said he wanted to bring together officials from countries of origin, transit and destination to find a solution.

He said the meeting would be held in Jakarta, tentatively next month.

"The countries to be invited are the concerned countries, such as some countries of (the Association of South-East Asian Nations) which are used as transit before entering Indonesia, the potential destination countries such as Australia and also the countries where they started their trip," Mr Wirayuda said. The Howard Government yesterday announced it would accept 40 of about 500 refugees who had had their asylum claims approved by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Jakarta.

Of those who were on the shipwreck, 30 were recognised refugees but were frustrated at delays in their resettlement.

Six of the 44 survivors were registered with the UNHCR but it was not clear whether their claims had been approved.

The move follows the drowning of the 353 mainly Iraqis seeking asylum in Australia, the worst single loss of life in the history of the illegal boat traffic to Australia through Indonesia. It is believed other boats have gone down, including one carrying 247 people.

The day after the disaster became public Indonesian and Australian police began work on how to bring to justice the organisers of the vessel. The syndicate leader - a man identifying himself as Egyptian citizen Abu Quessai - and his associates are being hunted by police.

Australian police have informed Indonesian counterparts they are ready to assist. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock has offered to prosecute the smuggler if Indonesia agrees to his extradition.

Mr Quessai faces manslaughter charges that could carry a life penalty.

As the fallout from the sinking of the refugee vessel grew yesterday, further revelations emerged of the trauma experienced by the 44 survivors.

Refugee Karim Jabbur, 41, said seven survivors committed suicide at sea when they discovered all their family members had drowned. A 13-year-old girl was among those who took their lives after several hours drifting at sea.

Soon after the boat went down, he said, 14 survivors scrambled to get hold of a large wooden plank.

"After a time they got a manic attack," he said. "They were crying and shouting and pushed themselves in the water and were saying, 'We will follow our families' ."

The surviving refugees yesterday threatened they would also take their own lives unless the UNHCR found a solution within three weeks.

Falah Hassan, 31, who lost his wife and three children, said: "What do I have? I have lost all my family."

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