Storms strand 500 illegals on islands
Don Greenlees
Jakarta correspondent
30 July 2001

BAD weather and unseaworthy boats have left 493 Middle Eastern and Asian migrants destined for Australia stranded on three islands in Indonesia in the past week.

The biggest boatload, 314 people from Pakistan and Afghanistan, landed on the southern tip of Sumatra on Saturday, claiming the pilot of the vessel had deserted them after leaving Jakarta.

After being held temporarily at a naval base, the group returned to Jakarta and sought assistance yesterday from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. These migrants will have forfeited thousands of dollars paid to people-smugglers.

Two other smaller boatloads of migrants seeking illegal entry to Australia have also foundered in recent days. One group of 139 Afghans pulled in at the island of Sumba, in the eastern archipelago late on Thursday after running into a storm.

Another vessel, carrying 40 people from Iran and Iraq, reportedly struck a rock off Flores on July 22. A three-year-old child was thrown into the sea and drowned while the passengers were attempting to transfer to fishing vessels attempting a rescue.

The Iranians and Iraqis are being held on Flores awaiting transfer to better facilities in Kupang, West Timor. Two organisers of the vessel have been placed under arrest.

The troubles of the three vessels cap a series of recent setbacks for Indonesia-based people-smuggling rings. No boat has made the journey to northwestern Australia since June 30.

As well as the 493 people who had to abandon the journey this week, Indonesian authorities have been holding 250 people at the port of Bima on Sumbawa for several weeks. They are to be moved soon into a detention centre at Lombok.

Police say a combination of poor preparation, improved interception efforts and bad publicity have significantly hindered the operations of people smugglers. Some smugglers have found it increasingly hard to obtain boats and passengers in recent weeks.

Increased cooperation between authorities in Australia and South-East Asia has also put more pressure on peoples mugglers. But a spokesman for Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock said yesterday: 'We know there are still a lot of people in Indonesia.'

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