Tragedy spurs talks on illegal immigrants

Thursday, October 25, 2001
The Jakarta Post

Following the loss of over 350 illegal immigrants in the Java Sea over the weekend, Indonesia vowed to coordinate efforts to curb the flow of immigrants, while Australia offered a helping hand.

Foreign minister Hassan Wirayuda said on Wednesday that Indonesia would host a regional meeting with several Asian countries and Australia to discuss the issue.

"We are taking the initiative to convene a regional meeting in a bid to solve the problem of illegal immigration," Hassan said after attending the opening of a meeting of Indonesian overseas representatives at the State Palace.

The regional meeting on refugees would be held in Indonesia in November, he said, without elaborating.

Hassan said member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as Australia, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan would be invited to the conference.

ASEAN countries, especially Indonesia, have been used as transit points for refugees, originating from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and other South Asian and Middle Eastern countries, heading ultimately for Australia or New Zealand.

He warned of a larger wave of asylum-seekers following U.S.-led strikes on Afghanistan.

"With the military action in Afghanistan, we should anticipate that the wave of refugees will grow. We must act comprehensively to deal with the issue," he said.

The issue of illegal migration resurfaced after a boat carrying 418 asylum-seekers on their way to Australia from Indonesia sank off the coast of Java. Only 44 survived.

The people on board were mostly Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians and Algerians.

"We are concerned about the incident and our government, along with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, decided to provide assistance to the survivors of the tragedy," Hassan said.

According to Director General of immigration at the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights Iman Santoso 43 of the 44 survivors claimed to be Iraqis, while the other was an Afghan.

The survivors are now recovering at Wisma Palar in Gunung Putri, Bogor, West Java, which is managed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Separately, UNHCR said that about 30 people who had already qualified as refugees may have been on the ill-fated boat, a grim reminder of how desperate many were to start a new life.

Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said Canberra had identified an Egyptian people-smuggler operating out of Jakarta as the one responsible for the ill-fated boat journey and Australia had informed Jakarta about him several times.

"We know the identity of the person who handled this particular group of travelers; he put 400 people on a boat 10 meters (30 feet) long that could only take 150 people," Ruddock said, as quoted by Reuters on Wednesday.

"We have made an offer to Indonesia to accept, by way of extradition, all of the people-smugglers and to try them," he said.

An extradition treaty already exists between the two countries.

Meanwhile, the National Police said their own sources had identified a Middle Eastern man named Abu Kasim, but they were unsure of his country of origin.

"The information from the Australian police corresponds with what we have obtained from several sources here, but we're still trying to corroborate it with hard facts," National Police spokesman Brig. Gen. Saleh Saaf said.

"We don't know where this man is; we are looking for him."

Saaf said that the Indonesian police wholeheartedly agreed to extradite the man to Australia if they could locate him and gather enough evidence against him.

Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said that all of the country's security agencies, including police, navy, seaport security, and intelligence, had tried to restrict the activities of illegal migrants.

However, he stated, "our country has a long coastline and our security capability to monitor (illegal migrants') activities is limited."

IOM chief in Indonesia Richard Danziger nevertheless applauded Indonesia's efforts to act against the smugglers.

"Over the last 18 months Indonesia has moved forward in addressing the issue. Increasingly, illegal migrants are being intercepted," he told AFP.

Meanwhile senior U.N. officials in Indonesia Wednesday called on the government to investigate allegations that police forced asylum seekers onto toe boat, AP reported.

Some of the survivors have accused Indonesian police of threatening to kill them if they did not board the boat.

However, national deputy police spokesman Lt. Col. Prasetyo denied the allegations. "The accusations are not true," he said. "It is our duty to protect the refugees."

Other asylum seekers told The Associated Press earlier they were not coerced onto the boat.


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