Pressure mounts over ghost boats

Brisbane Times
Natalie O'Brien
September 11, 2011

A DISTRESS call giving out the co-ordinates of a stricken boat carrying 105 Hazaras seeking asylum, who are now presumed to have drowned, was received by Australian Customs and Border Protection officials but the agency has never publicly revealed the details.

Advice that the vessel was in distress and its position in seas between Indonesia and Australia on October 3, 2009, was passed by the agency to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which called in the Indonesian search and rescue agency to take over the search.

But the boat has never been found and those on board have not been heard from since, despite the Home Affairs Minister, Brendan O'Connor, having later said that ''subsequent credible information'' showed the boat's difficulties had been resolved.

Customs has never revealed whether the distress call came from the stricken vessel or from another source. Shortly after the boat disappeared, frantic Afghan community members in Australia made inquiries with the Department of Immigration and Customs and Border Protection, but were told nothing about the fate of the boat.

Questions in Parliament in May, which have only just been answered, reveal it was not until a story about the missing boat was published three months later, on January 18, 2010, that Customs and Border Protection ''reviewed its information holdings'' and found the data.

Within two days of the story appearing, Mr O'Connor had been briefed. But still, the families were told nothing. The opposition spokesman for justice, customs and border protection, Michael Keenan, said ''these are grave allegations about a minister misleading about what the government knew and when they knew it. A possible tragedy of this magnitude demands the fullest possible account of events.

''I urge Minister O'Connor to use the Parliament this week to provide that account and to clarify the discrepancies in the comments the government have already made on this matter. If he doesn't take up that opportunity then we will look at ways that the Parliament can make the government account for everything it knows."

The boat is one of eight believed to have sunk between Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia in the past 2 years. The most recent vanished on November 14 last year with 97 on board after leaving a port near Jakarta. It is believed many more have gone missing and one may have disappeared just before the SIEV 221 smashed into rocks on Christmas Island last December, killing 50.

An Iranian woman who lost five relatives in the tragedy will tell the West Australian Coroner's Court next week that when she inquired about the approaching boat Christmas Island detention centre staff asked which boat she was talking about - the one the Navy had detected or another that had gone missing.

Information about the 105 missing Afghan Hazaras, a Persian-speaking ethnic group who live mainly in the central region of Afghanistan, only came to light after the opposition asked in Parliament what the government knew about each of the missing eight boats.

The families of the missing Hazaras have long questioned how the boat could have vanished without trace, with two governments aware of its existence. They had no idea the government had such specific information about its distress.

Afghan community spokesman Hassan Ghulam, has called on the government to release details of the distress call, who made it and any other information available.

Mr Ghulam said relatives last received calls from those aboard the boat saying that they were in international waters between Java and Australia.

''The last call we know about was one of the passengers saying we can see the Australian forces coming towards us. We are going to throw our mobiles overboard,'' he said.

Mr Ghulam said the government needed to answer many questions, including whether it had any satellite or radar images of the boat.

He also wanted to know whether the navy saw them, and if so, why did they not rescue them. The families of the missing deserved to know what happened, he said.

''We are not blaming the authorities. People know they are risking their lives when they get on these boats,'' he said. ''If they have drowned, then we can have a funeral and get on with things.''

Do you know more? n.obrien@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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