When hope turns to despair

8 November 2001
By the BBC's Richard Galpin in Jakarta

The phone was ringing somewhere deep in my sub-conscious. It kept ringing until reluctantly I crawled out of bed.

It was gone midnight and the voice of the BBC's foreign editor was on the other end of the line from London.

The head office of the International Organisation for Migration - IOM - in Geneva had just decided to go public with information that a ship packed with more than 400 illegal immigrants from Iraq and Afghanistan had sunk off the coast of Java. The survivors - less than 50 in all - had now arrived back in Jakarta and were being looked after by the IOM at a special hostel just outside the capital, where many had been staying previously.

The rest of the night was spent in a blur of filing reports in a detached kind of way, the human element obscured by the hour as well as the distance from the people involved.

But the significance of what had happened was crystal clear. For the first time we had been able to find out what many asylum-seekers go through in their desperate search for a better life in another country.

Australian immigration policy
All this was particularly relevant given the current policy of the Australian Government under Prime Minister John Howard.

Stepped-up navy patrols have been turning back any boats with asylum-seekers on board entering Australian waters.

This new policy looks set to win the prime minister a surprise second term in office in this month's general election.

By daybreak we were in the car heading for the hostel - camera-crew in tow. Our minds were focused on the logistics of the day ahead.

But our arrival was to change all that. The hostel was awash with grief so intense it is impossible to put into words. Most disturbing were not the people weeping openly at the loss of their families, but those sitting in silence.

Shocked and traumatised
A group of Iraqi men sat in the foyer staring into the distance, their faces badly burnt from the 20 hours they had spent in the sea clinging to pieces of wreckage.

Many had deep cuts on their arms, legs and feet. I dreaded the moment we would have to begin interviewing - pushing cameras and microphones at them and asking them about the very thing they were trying so hard to remove from their memories.

With a simple shake of the head, several refused. Eventually though, one teenage boy from Basra in Southern Iraq began to open up. And so the story unfolded.

It had begun one night in early October when several buses had arrived at the hostel - organised by an international smuggling gang led by an Egyptian man.

About 50 people got on board believing they were embarking on the final leg of a journey which would transform their lives - taking them to Australia where they could forget the hardship and persecution back home under the regimes of Saddam Hussein or the Taleban.

They travelled west, crossing to the Indonesian island of Sumatra where they were joined by hundreds more asylum-seekers on the south-west coast.

Eventually, the boat which would take them to the Australian territory of Christmas Island was ready. It is not clear at what point they paid the smugglers - what is known is that each person handed over at least $600. Some said they had paid more than $2,000.

Tiny fishing boat
But their excitement soon turned to horror when they saw the fishing boat which they had been promised would take them safely to Australia.

It was tiny and in extremely poor condition. By the time the last of the 400 passengers had been crammed on board, it was already dangerously low in the water.

Many had wanted to get off, realising it was a death-trap. But the smugglers, along with several police officers who had allegedly been bribed to assist this illegal operation, stopped them.

The day after they set sail the engines failed, the boat filled with water in the rough seas of the Indian Ocean and sank within minutes.

Many families were trapped inside and drowned immediately. But more than 100 survived the initial disaster.

The survivors we spoke to described how they had clung on to pieces of wreckage for an entire day and night hoping to be spotted by other fishing boats that might be in the area.

Tragically they watched as family members and friends lost their strength and will to live, and were eventually washed away in the waves.

Back in the hostel were many who had lost their entire families - including an 11-year-old Iraqi girl who had become an orphan in a foreign land where she had no future.

And these are the people the Australian Government describes as opportunists and queue-jumpers. But the worst part of this story is that despite what happened, several of the survivors and other asylum-seekers at the hostel told us that they would soon be trying again to reach Australia by boat - regardless of the dangers.

And I can almost understand why. They cannot return to their home countries for fear of reprisals by the authorities. But in Indonesia it is an endless wait. Their applications to the United Nations for official refugee status take months if not years to be processed.

And then - even if they are eventually given the precious UN refugee card - almost no third countries seem willing to take them for permanent resettlement.

So their only hope is to entrust their lives to the smuggling gangs and the boats they buy which may or may not reach Australia.

X-URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/1634950.stm

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