Relatives fear 97 refugees have died at sea

Natalie O'Brien
The Age
December 26, 2010

FEARS are mounting that 97 missing asylum seekers from Iraq and Iran may have died at sea, en route to Australia from Indonesia.

Relatives of 14 of the missing have told welfare workers they last had contact with them on November 13. They said their relatives had been in Jakarta and planned to leave the next day on a boat with about 97 people.

The journey from Indonesia by sea takes two to four days, but no further contact has been made by anyone believed to have left Jakarta in mid-November.

''We have been receiving many phone calls from family members that have lost contact with their beloved ones,'' said Jamal Daoud of the Social Justice Network. ''They told us that there were 97 persons on the boat. A few of the family members contacted Indonesian authorities to explore if their family members are in jail or detention, but the answer was always negative.''

The vessel had been due to arrive more than three weeks before the boat tragedy on Christmas Island on December 15, when at least 48 asylum seekers died. None of the people who planned to leave Jakarta on November 14 are thought to have been aboard that boat.

Mr Daoud said that if they had arrived in Australia, some would have made contact by now. He said that when asylum seekers are taken into detention, they are allowed to call their families to let them know they have arrived.

Refugee advocates making inquiries in Indonesia say they have been told the November boat was lost.

Mr Daoud said there was a chance the boat engine had failed and the passengers and crew were shipwrecked on a remote island, but relatives feared the boat may have sunk.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said the authority was not aware of claims of a missing boat. No boat had been detected and no rescue mission carried out in the period in which the vessel may have been near or in Australian waters.

Mr Daoud said photos of the missing people were sent to the Immigration Department and detention centres more than a week ago. The department said it could not comment on the case.

¦Authorities yesterday intercepted an asylum-seeker vessel north-east of Ashmore Island. It had 57 passengers and three crew.

Separately, 109 Papua New Guineans, protesting for Australian citizenship and detained on Horn Island, off Cape York Peninsula, last week, were flown home yesterday.

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