Governments knew asylum boat was in danger

Sydney Morning Herald
May 25, 2010
Tom Allard and Yuko Narushima

The Australian and Indonesian governments knew a boat filled with asylum seekers was in peril, but failed to help the stricken vessel.

Frantic relatives have not heard from the missing for more than seven months and are demanding to know how a boat could vanish with two governments aware of its existence.

The doomed boat left Indonesia on October 2. Australian authorities learnt a vessel was in distress the following day but the Home Affairs Minister, Brendan O'Connor, said "subsequent credible information" showed its difficulties had been resolved.

No details of a resolution have been offered to Mohamad Heidari, whose search for his teenage brother has taken him from his home in New York to Pakistan and Indonesia. He remains frustrated that authorities have been unable to shed light on the disappearance.

Habib Heidari had called his brother excitedly just before setting sail with more than 100 other asylum seekers.

"We were very worried when he wanted to take this boat. He was just a teenage boy. He said, 'Don't worry. It is safe to take this boat,'" Mr Heidari said.

Dozens of other family and friends of those on board had similar calls, including when the boat was at sea between Java and Christmas Island.

The Heidari family fled Afghanistan in 1999 as the Taliban homed in on their village in Oruzgan province, where Australian troops now serve.

Mr Heidari was accepted as a refugee in the US in 2003. He had no luck arranging for his brother to join him later, prompting Habib to leave his new home in Pakistan for Australia.

Habib paid $US12,000 to a people-smuggling syndicate and took the familiar route, by plane with a fake passport, to Malaysia and then to Indonesia before hooking up with a boat.

"There were many people on this boat, families, mothers with children," said Mr Heidari, in Jakarta.

"The Indonesian and Australian authorities have told us nothing. What happened to this boat? Where did it sink? In Indonesia or Australia? There are so many unanswered questions."

Panicked calls to the agents in the days after the boat went missing were met with replies that the boat had arrived safely, and demands for a final payment to be made.

The money was paid but there was no further contact from those on the boat. "They said we would hear in 10 or 12 days, but we haven't heard anything," Mr Heidari said.

The Australian government shared information with the Indonesian government, believing the boat to be in that country's search and rescue zone. Surveillance by Border Protection Command, and actions by Indonesian authorities, on October 3 failed to turn up a vessel in distress.

Mr O'Connor said that "surveillance activities that day by border protection command did not detect a vessel in distress".

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