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Broadcast: 15/4/2002
To Deter and Deny

Four Corners gets the inside story on Operation Relex - the defence forces' mission to stop asylum-seekers reaching Australian shores. On the surface, Relex has been a success, but what actually goes on when the Navy encounters leaky boats packed with anxious, desperate and sometimes unruly people?

Reporter: Debbie Whitmont
Producer: Linda Larsen
Research: Jo Puccini

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Late last year, a small wooden boat left Bima in Indonesia. After three days, it was in Australian waters. Its engine had stopped and its hull was leaking. On board were 11 asylum seekers -- one of them, a 6-month-old baby.

WOMAN: We see a helicopter. We wave to the helicopter, please help us -- Please help, please help.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The Australian Navy did help. But it didn't come to the rescue.
It was under government orders known as Operation Relex.

COMMANDER NORMAN BANKS, CAPTAIN HMAS 'ADELAIDE': Our mission was to deter and deny entry to Australia.

WOMAN: We said, "Help, help, don't leave us, don't leave us," but they leave us in a very bad condition.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Last year, throughout the federal election campaign, Operation Relex prevented thousands of asylum seekers from landing in Australia.

But what did Relex order our Defence Forces to do? And what did it mean for those who were seeking asylum?

Tonight, on Four Corners, Operation Relex, and its mission -- to deter and deny.

The island of Lombok, like its neighbour Bali, could easily be a holiday paradise. But Western tourists are few.

Recently, the capital, Mataram, has become a halfway house for nearly 400 asylum seekers who've tried to reach Australia.

None made it to the mainland.

Instead, their boats were picked up by the Australian Navy and sent back to Indonesia.

These people, from Afghanistan, left Indonesia last year on 4 October.

It was midnight.

From the start, as the smugglers pushed them onto a small boat, many were terrified.

MAN 1: They were shouting, "Do not unload the rest of the people," because it is crowded.

We will drown.

We will go to our death because this boat does not have the ability to move all these people.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: After two days, the engine broke down, the food supplied by the smugglers ran out, and the passengers began to ration their water.

It took two more days for one of the asylum seekers -- a mechanic -- to fix the engine.

It was hot, there was little shade, and little room to move between the 238 people crowded on board.

ALI: We were completely two days in the heart of the ocean.

Just the women and the children -- they were crying.

And at that time, there was such a pathetic condition that words cannot explain it.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Ali, who worked for a Western health organisation in Afghanistan, says people began suffering from heat and seasickness, diarrhoea and scabies.

Hygiene was impossible.

After three more days at sea, a young baby died.

MAN 2: I think because of the hard weather I had nothing to help him.

When I see the temperature was really high, I bathed him and put him in the shady place.

Then it was too late.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: As the baby died, another mother was going into labour.

It was long and difficult.

Fatama's baby, her third, was born after nearly a week at sea.

Soon after, the asylum seekers were celebrating.

They'd seen land.

It was Ashmore Island -- Australian territory, and long known as an asylum seeker's entry point to Australia.

Fatama called her baby Ashmorey.

ALI: And all of the passengers had this feeling that from this dangerous way, we were rescued.

Thanks God from this dangerous trip, we have rescued.

All of them have this feeling that tears come from their eyes.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The asylum seekers were even happier when they saw a large Australian ship.

It was the Navy frigate 'Warramunga'.

A boarding party in a speed boat asked who spoke English and found Ali.

MAN 2: They told me, told us, "Go back.

The Australia Government will not accept you, accept illegal immigration."

DEBBIE WHITMONT: What did you say?

MAN 2: I told them we are not illegal immigration.

We are asylum seekers.

We are homeless.

We have no houses.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: What happened then?

MAN 2: They didn't hear us.

Then they stop.

They gave us warning to stop the boat.

We continue.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: After several more warnings, the asylum seekers say the Navy boarded their boat and took it closer to Ashmore Island.

WOMAN 2 (translation): They took us to near the island.

A number of soldiers had come on board and some of the small ships were following us.

We were happy that we had arrived.

When we got there, they said, "You wait here," and the ships left.

We stayed there for six days.

MAN 2: When I asked them, they said that, "The Government did not decide on you.

Maybe they will ask you to come to Australia."

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The asylum seekers expected that they, like others before them, would be taken to Australia where their refugee claims would be processed.

They didn't know that, under new laws, Ashmore Island was no longer a part of Australia for the purposes of migration.

And they didn't know that the Australian Government had vowed not to allow them on the mainland.

The only decision left to the Government was what else to do with them.

It was 26 August when the Norwegian freighter, 'Tampa', rescued 438 asylum seekers from a sinking ferry.

The same day, a Sunday, the Prime Minister's new People Smuggling Task Force held its first meeting in Canberra.

The Prime Minister couldn't have made his attitude to the 'Tampa' clearer.

JOHN HOWARD: It does not have permission to enter Australian territorial waters.

It will not be given permission to land in Australia or any Australian territories.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Prevented from off-loading their passengers in Australia, the 'Tampa' crew struggled to treat many sick asylum seekers.

The 'Tampa's First Mate, Christian Maltau, told Four Corners that at least 100 people had diarrhoea and that, at any given time, more than 10 were unconscious from dehydration.

Christian Maltau said the 'Tampa's supply of intravenous fluid ran out in a day.

Fearing someone would die, the ship's captain asked Australia for medicines.

Though the 'Tampa' was close enough to see Christmas Island Hospital, no supplies were sent out to it.

Three days after the rescue, the 'Tampa' issued a mayday.

The Prime Minister ordered the SAS to board the Norwegian ship.

Later, the Prime Minister said the Tampa's captain had lied.

JOHN HOWARD: There were no cases on board the vessel requiring medical evacuation.

Mr Ruddock and I have called this news conference this morning to announce that an agreement has been reached --

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Within a week of the 'Tampa' rescue, the Prime Minister announced his Pacific solution.

Nauru and New Zealand would take the asylum seekers and the Defence Force would step up its surveillance of the waters between Australia and Indonesia.

JOHN HOWARD: This will involve five naval vessels and four P3 Orion aircraft.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: What the Prime Minister didn't spell out in detail was his new mission for the Defence Forces.

It was called Operation Relex.

REAR ADMIRAL CHRIS RITCHIE: The mission statement was to conduct surveillance and response operations in order to deter unauthorised boat arrivals from entering Australian territorial waters within the designated area of operations.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Under Relex, operational decisions and reports went beyond the Defence Forces to a committee known as the Prime Minister's People Smuggling Task Force.

It was chaired by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

SENATOR BRETT MASON: Sir, do you know whether reports have reached the interdepartmental committee on people smuggling?

BRIGADIER MICHAEL SILVERSTONE: I am aware that they have because -- especially issues to do with where we're attempting to return a vessel to the vicinity of Indonesian territorial seas.

That's an issue in terms of the management of that that receives, as far as I'm aware, considerable discussion.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Operation Relex began at midnight on 3 September.

Over the next few weeks, the Navy transported more than 800 people to Nauru.

HMAS 'Manoora' picked up the asylum seekers from the 'Tampa' and another group from a boat called the 'Aceng'.

The 'Aceng' had carried 230 mostly Iraqi asylum seekers.

More than 80 were children -- 10 of them, babies.

In Nauru, and facing detention, many of the Iraqis refused to get off the 'Manoora'.

REAR ADMIRAL GEOFFREY SMITH: My assessment would be that they were being difficult because they knew they were on Australia.

A warship is Australia and they were reluctant to get off it because they knew by getting off it they were not achieving what their objective was.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: On the 'Manoora', conditions deteriorated.

According to this statement given to Amnesty International by one group of the Iraqis now detained in Nauru, asylum seekers were kept below deck for long periods.

Children with diarrhoea were untreated.

Toilets were flooded and filthy.

Most of all, asylum seekers report their distress that they were regularly videotaped in humiliating circumstances -- dirty, sick, with diarrhoea and amid flooded toilets.

On the other side, the Navy reported rioting, damage and volatile situations it had never encountered in peacetime.

VICE ADMIRAL DAVID SHACKLETON, CHIEF OF NAVY: This has been very hard work and I think the sailors have acquitted themselves in a way which I think most Australians would be very proud of.

The people themselves are in difficult circumstances.

The point is that they are trying to get to Australia.

It's been the Navy's task to stop them doing that.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: No naval personnel were allowed to speak to Four Corners.

But we understand that many found events on the 'Manoora' distressing.

Some report asylum seekers throwing faeces at sailors.

The asylum seekers don't deny it.

STATEMENT FROM IRAQI DETAINEES IN NAURU: Some of us, out of ignorance, or being children, or because of the stresses we have experienced, or because of lost dreams which were feasible but have disappeared, or because of the loss of money or loss of time -- all these resulted in some uncivilised behaviour.

We all apologise for this.

We are persecuted people.

We ran away from an inferno with our families to a country which we respect.

JOHN HOWARD: We will continue to require people now on the 'Manoora' to leave and are taking what are appropriate steps in a lawful way for that to happen.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The 'Manoora' stand-off lasted nearly three weeks.

Throughout it, the Prime Minister's People Smuggling Task Force met almost daily, directing details of operations on the 'Manoora' and on Nauru.

The last asylum seekers left the warship in early October.

DETAINEE: Suddenly, the place was invaded by 20 armed soldiers carrying batons, electric sticks, water hoses and other strange weapons.

They hit some of us, including a woman, and forced us to disembark.

They told us not to talk about anything.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The next day, the Prime Minister called an election.

JOHN HOWARD: Above all, the nation needs, at the helm, a group of men and women who have strength, who have experience and have a clear view of what they believe in and what they stand for.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Two days later, the HMAS 'Adelaide' was intercepting another boat under Operation Relex.

It was the now-famous Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel -- or SIEV -- number four.

JOHN HOWARD: I don't want, in Australia, people who would throw their own children into the sea.

I don't.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The claims that children were thrown overboard have now been disproved.

But they overshadowed another, more real difficulty for the Navy.

Having boarded the boat and taken it to the high seas, as ordered, Commander Banks assessed it as only marginally seaworthy.

Soon after the boarding party left the boat, it stopped.

COMMANDER NORMAN BANKS: My summary is that once we took the boarding party off the SIEV, they disabled their engine and disabled their steering and had no intent to continue back to Indonesia.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: At this point, the boat began filling with water.

The asylum seekers raised a white sheet as a distress signal.

On seeing it, the 'Adelaide' returned.

The asylum seekers were panicking, but Operation Relex gave Commander Banks few choices.

COMMANDER NORMAN BANKS: Our mission was to deter and deny their access to Australia.

Taking them on-board 'Adelaide', in other than a 'safety of life' situation, would have been a mission failure.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Commander Banks asked his boss, Brigadier Silverstone, for permission to tow the boat to safety.

According to the 'Adelaide's log --

SENATOR ANDREW BARTLETT: "The commanding officer advised approval from PM of Australia "to tow vessel to place to be determined."

Is that a normal thing for the Prime Minister to involve himself in, in operational matters like this?

COMMANDER NORMAN BANKS: That originated from a telephone call, I believe, with Commander JTF 639, who advised me that, ah, this was a big deal, and that, ah, the Prime Minister, ah, would make the decision where we would take this vessel.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The Navy began towing.

But as the water level inside the boat reached about a metre, the asylum seekers say they grew desperate.

This statement, from five of the asylum seekers now detained on Manus Island, was sent to the current Senate inquiry.

STATEMENT FROM ASYLUM SEEKERS ON MANUS ISLAND: We appealed to the Australian Navy officer, asking him to help the women and children to abandon the sinking boat.

The only answer we've heard from the officer on board our boat was that they were reporting directly to the Prime Minister's Office, and the order must come from them.

SENATOR JACINTA COLLINS: It's pretty obvious through the logs that there's a belief from officers on the ship that the approval process goes beyond the Brigadier.


I recollect there were some conversations where the Brigadier took me into his confidence and explained things -- that this was important, and it was going, ah, to government, and indeed the Prime Minister, on certain occasions, for decisions to be made.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: After 24 hours, the 'Adelaide' abandoned its tow.

Shortly afterward, the boat sank, due largely, according to Commander Banks, to its unseaworthiness.

The 'Adelaide' rescued the asylum seekers from the water.

Four days later, the frigate 'Warramunga' was intercepting the next group of asylum seekers.

It was the overcrowded boat where one baby had died and another, baby Ashmorey, had just been born.

The Navy took the boat to Ashmore Island and waited for orders.

It waited, inside Australian waters, for nearly a week.

WOMAN 2 (translation): We stayed for six days.

We asked the soldiers what would happen to us, how long it would be.

Some of the children were overcome by fumes from the boat's engine.

We were in a bad state.

The soldiers said they didn't know what would happen.

They brought food for us, brought water.

I mean, they were very kind.

There was a doctor.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: On the boat, Fatama, baby Ashmorey's mother, was bleeding severely.

The Navy doctor was clearly worried.

Ali translated between the doctor, Fatama and her husband, Saeed.

On the first day, says Saeed, the doctor saw Fatama twice and gave her some tablets.

SAEED (translation): When he came back in the afternoon, he said he might take her away and asked if I had any objection.

TRANSLATOR: You have any objection?

SAEED (translation): I said I had none.

I would have been happy with anything that would get her treated.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The next day, Saeed says a male and a female doctor came with more tablets.

SAEED (translation): She'd vomit blood when she took the tablets.

She couldn't take the tablets.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: What did the doctor say?

According to Saeed, the decision to take Fatama to hospital had to be made by a higher authority than the doctor.

SAEED (translation): He said he had asked for a security permit but hadn't got it yet but that he would try to get it soon to take her away.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: A day later, Saeed says the doctor said he was still trying.

SAEED (translation): On the third day, he checked her.

The woman doctor saw her too and said, "She really needs something.

Try to get her out of here."

The doctor said, "We don't have a lot of medicines here.

I'll try to take her away with me."

DEBBIE WHITMONT: But the official record is different.

On the same day, according to a Navy summary tabled in the Senate, "The mother's condition had improved, and following specialist advice, the medical officer declared that MEDEVAC wasn't necessary."

The next day, the doctor made only a cursory visit.

Fatama's husband says his wife bled for nearly a month.

SAEED (translation): On the fourth day, he didn't check anybody.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The two medical officers weren't allowed to talk to Four Corners, but we've been told of a belief on the 'Warramunga', as on the 'Adelaide', that any decision to move an asylum seeker -- even to a mainland hospital -- needed approval at the highest level of government.

As the asylum seekers waited at Ashmore Island, there was a major change in government policy.

REAR ADMIRAL GEOFFREY SMITH: We received new instructions which were to, where possible, intercept, board and to return the vessel to Indonesia.

SENATOR ANDREW BARTLETT: So this was the first attempt to, uh, exercise that new requirement?


DEBBIE WHITMONT: The 'Warramunga', supported by soldiers, took over the asylum seekers' boat.

WOMAN 2 (translation): One day, they came and said, "The Australia Government has accepted you."

We were so happy.

We had been there six days but we were so happy it didn't matter.

Then he said, "Australia has accepted you.

We're taking the families to the big ship.

The single men will stay on the small boat."

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The families were taken on board the 'Warramunga'.

The single men were left on the boat.

ALI: We asked them were we should go.

They told us, "We take you to a camp in Australia."

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Ali was told to get the men down a ladder and into the boat's hold.

He and others say the hold was big enough for about 50 people.

But more than 160 were pushed inside.

MAN 2: A lot of people went down.

There was no place.

Then he said, "Push them inside.

I told them, I requested them, some people don't want to.

There is no place.

Then they send them by force.

Some army.

ALI: So most of the people sat on the legs of each other.

Most of the people were standing.

And there were also the smoke of the engine.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The men couldn't see out, but they began to get suspicious.

MAN 1: A little bit -- another kind of feeling struck in our mind that if they respected us, if they're taking us to Australia, if they accept the migrants, so what are this commandos coming in here for?

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The men were told they'd only be in the hold for about five minutes.

But they were kept there for nearly two days.

While they were there, the boat was taken north by the Australians.

MAN 1: Each five or ten minutes, people were fainting.

They were becoming unconscious because there was not enough oxygen, there was not enough water.

ALI: So, every five or ten minutes, one person would to into the shock and the police would take them up and throw water on their face.

Then after three or five minutes, when they became conscious, take him back down.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The wooden boat with the men on it and the 'Warramunga' where Ali was with the families moved off together.

After two nights, Ali was told to tell the families they were almost back in Indonesia.

They had 10 minutes to get off the 'Warramunga' and back onto their wooden boat.

MAN 2: Really my heart is broken.

Then he repeated again, repeated, "Tell the people you have nine minutes."


I tell the people.

All the ladies and children cries.


They cried a lot.

Really, I also cried.

And then --

He announced eight minutes.

He announced six minutes.

He announced four minutes.

Three minutes.

Two minutes.

WOMAN 2 (translation): Some people even said, "We'll throw ourselves into the sea.

Why have you brought us to Indonesia and not accepted us?"

MAN 3 (translation): The families and children were crying.

We had come to Australia to escape miserable lives, despair and war.

All these families have had someone killed.

They've sold their homes to get here.

They were saying, despite all that, you still don't accept us.

They said, we will force you off the ship.

MAN 2: All the people stopped their crying.

They were afraid.

They came and they took one family from inside.

MAN 4 (translation): When the commandoes came into the ship, they covered their faces.

They put electric batons against the badges on their shoulders.

When the wires touched them, there was a spark so we could see they were electric batons.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: This family refused to leave.

They say they were hit with an electric baton.

WOMAN 3 (translation): It was like a black stick.

About this size.

(Indicates a point up to her elbow.)

When they pulled it out, they first hit the shoulders.

They had badges on their shoulders.

When it hit, it gave off electricity.

MAN 3 (translation): Tell them that they were filming what happened.

They have the film.

You ask them for it.

SENATOR ROBERT HILL, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: At your request, I asked the Defence Force whether they use such equipment and I have been advised that they neither have it nor use it.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Is it appropriate to use force against asylum seekers?

SENATOR ROBERT HILL: Well, we're protecting our borders.

That's the point.

There are those who wish to breach our borders, to engage in that illegal activity.

We're entitled, and furthermore, we believe it's our responsibility to do our best to protect our borders.

MAN 2: When they bring me back to our boat, when I reached there, there was a soldier.

Really, he's crying.


MAN 2: I was also crying at that time, yeah, I was crying.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: On October 22, the warship 'Arunta' intercepted the Navy's seventh boat under Operation Relex.

It was carrying mostly Iraqi asylum seekers, now also in Lombok.

Mohammad Ali was the first to speak to the Australians.

He asked for the United Nations, or the International Red Cross.

MOHAMMAD ALI: I asked them, we are asylum seekers and we need to approach the UNHCR or the ICRC or anyone from your Government.

Well, they didn't pay attention.

They say, "We are in the middle of the ocean, we cannot meet these demands."

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The Navy took the asylum seekers to Ashmore Island.

They were kept there six days.

The asylum seekers kept asking what would happen to them.

MOHAMMAD ALI: They said always, "We don't know."

Sometimes, they give you signs that you will go to Australia.

I think this is to keep the people calm.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: As the Iraqi boat waited, the Prime Minister was preparing for his campaign launch in Sydney.

Crew on the warship 'Arunta', at Ashmore Island, were acutely aware of his election timetable.

Their operation -- to remove the Iraqi boat from Australia -- was delayed by a day.

A source on the 'Arunta' has told Four Corners that the crew were told over the ship's loudspeaker, maybe tongue-in-cheek, that the delay was to make sure that the operation wouldn't interfere with the Liberal Party launch.

JOHN HOWARD: We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: This video of the Iraqi boat was taken by the Navy.

Sailors' logs describe the boat as "overcrowded", "unhygienic" and "with no food or drinkable water".

The sailors say people on board had diabetes, including a child, sunstroke, dehydration, and ulcerated cuts and stomach cramps.

MOHAMMAD ALI: So many disease affected the people.

Skin diseases -- this conjunctivitis, eye viral conjunctivitis.

Most of the people were infected by this disease.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The video shows the scene a day after about 90 asylum seekers, mostly families, had been taken off the boat and onto the 'Arunta'.

They'd been moved to make way for the soldiers in the red caps known as the Transit Security Element, or TSE.

The TSE, made up of infantry, military police and intelligence officers, was put together specially for Operation Relex.

At this point in the video, the Australians have been driving the boat for a day and a night.

The 'Arunta' is nearby.

The Iraqi men say that earlier, a soldier who spoke Farsi, which many Iraqis understand, had talked about taking the asylum seekers to Australia.

But during the night, they had noticed that the boat changed direction.

MOHAMMAD ALI: Well, the turning point, I think, happened after midnight, they changed direction completely.

Because, you know, some people know from the stars and the situation of the moon that where you are heading.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The video now shows what happened the next morning.

AUSTRALIAN SOLDIER: Our Government has told me to take you to Indonesia, just there.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The Australians tell the asylum seekers the Australian Government won't let them in.

They are now three hours away from Indonesia.

AUSTRALIAN SOLDIER: Three hours away.

MAN 5: You can kill me know, kill me now.

Saddam will kill me.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The sailors clearly feel threatened.

AUSTRALIAN SOLDIER: I'm concerned about your safety and I'm concerned about my people's safety.

MEN SCREAM: Man overboard!

DEBBIE WHITMONT: A man jumps overboard, and is brought back to the boat.

AUSTRALIAN SOLDIER: Calm down, calm down!

Come back, come back.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Then, there is this --


DEBBIE WHITMONT: The man holding the child is yelling a question to the Australian soldier who speaks Farsi.

The Iraqis say he's asking, "What law allows Australia to deport this child and these people in a broken wooden boat?"

The asylum seekers begin cutting stay-lines to the mast and breaking off side panels.

AUSTRALIAN SOLDIER: He's still in the water, sir.

Another one overboard!

MOHAMMAD ALI: You couldn't control all those people at that time.

It was a very tough and hard time.

They were all hysterical and they were ready to commit suicide.

They lost everything this is as if you are killing them, shooting them.

This is a decision of execution for them, so they don't care.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: At this point, the Navy began bringing the people back from the 'Arunta'.

As the video shows, the boat was already crowded.

The video doesn't show what happened next.

MOHAMMAD ALI: They started to be very angry and hysterical and started to protest.

The soldiers started to come, with tear gas, or with their very long bars, clubs.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: It wasn't tear gas, but double-strength capsicum spray.

A number of men say they were sprayed in the eyes.

Mohammad Ali says 10 to 15 men were beaten with nightsticks.

During this time, some people from the warship were taken onto the roof of the boat's wheelhouse.

The wheelhouse supports began to lean.

Sailors on board saw that a section of the roof was starting to collapse.

They chocked up the roof with milk crates.

As soon as the last people were brought back from the 'Arunta', the Navy left.

MOHAMMAD ALI: They took their boats and they left us there to face our destiny, of 230 people, children and women, sick people -- so many sick.

People passed out, you know.

I cannot describe that moment because they were very horrible.

I cannot describe it at all.

All the people were down, crying, you know, shouting, hitting themselves, slapping, you know.

It was a very horrible situation.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The boat headed back to Indonesia.

12 hours later, it went aground.

It was 300m or 400m from an island called Rote.

The Indonesian crew abandoned the asylum seekers and swam ashore.

MOHAMMAD ALI: At that spot, the engine broke down.

On the water pump also broke down.

The water started to fill.

The ship -- we could not control it.

So, we have to choose at that time -- to stay in the boat.

Most of the people had children and and they cannot swim.

On the water, we were lucky, it was up to here, for the adults.

To stay in the ships until morning or decide to leave because the ship was starting to go to the ocean, you know.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The asylum seekers say they walked and carried people and children ashore in the dark.

Some men, who had capsicum sprayed in their eyes, told Four Corners they couldn't see where they were going.

The effects of capsicum spray are supposed to last only 45 minutes.

But most people on the boat were suffering from conjunctivitis -- some severely.

A forensic physician contacted by Four Corners says the combined effect of capsicum spray and conjunctivitis is unknown and untested.

The next day on Rote Island, three people were missing.

MOHAMMAD ALI: Unfortunately, we didn't find them.

And we don't know where they be lost, you know -- on board, in the sea.

I don't think on the island.

I don't think they reached the island.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Many of the asylum seekers had only met each other on the boat.

Some were travelling alone and knew no-one.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: What happened then?

This man knew Hussein Yahia, a 30-year-old who had left his son and daughter in Iraq.

Hussein Yahia was on the boat before the Australians left it.

What do you think happened to him?

MAN 5: I think he died.


MAN 5: How?

Maybe he fell into the sea.

Where did he go?

Six month we are here, no news about him.

Where did he go?

This man had befriended Thamer Hussein, an unmarried man with three brothers and a mother in Baghdad.

MAN 6 (translation): The last I saw him was when the Australia Army hit us with gas on the boat.

I saw him before they hit us with gas.

I haven't seen him since.

It was night time and I was blinded for three days.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: No-one saw Hussein Yahia, Thamer Hussein or the third man, Haithem Dawood, drowning.

But no-one has seen them since.

MOHAMMAD ALI: The boat was in a horrible situation.

Even you can't leave animals on this boat, not people or children or women.

This is a kind of genocide.

You are killing all these people when you leave them in this condition, in this sea.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Is there any doubt in your mind that any of the boats returned to Indonesia were, in fact, not seaworthy?

SENATOR ROBERT HILL: Our naval personnel would not -- not send anyone off on a boat that was seen to be unseaworthy.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Two more boats were intercepted during October.

And two days before the election, HMAS 'Wollongong' found another.

JOHN HOWARD: By the face of it, it's been quite an unpleasant incident.

Quite an unpleasant incident involving children.

Er, there may have been a couple of fatalities.

Er, I've been told that the vessel was deliberately lit.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Months later, the names of two women appeared on gravestones at Christmas Island.

According to the Navy they drowned when the boat was sabotaged and sank after it was boarded.

In November, John Howard won a third term in government.

By the end of the year, Operation Relex had been downgraded.

Throughout November and December, hundreds of intercepted asylum seekers made their way from Rote Island to Kupang in West Timor.

These pictures of conditions in Kupang were taken by one group of Iranians.

The Iranians and others speak of poor hygiene, no showers and limited drinking water.

The local hospital became crowded with sick asylum seekers.

Some people spent more than three months in Kupang.

The cost of keeping them there was paid for by Australia.

Last month, the last group of asylum seekers was moved from Kupang to north-eastern Java.

Australia is now footing the bill for nearly 1,400 people stranded in Indonesia.

Another 1,600 are in detention on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea.

The Australian Government labelled asylum seekers arriving by boat as queue jumpers.

It used our Defence Forces during an election campaign to prevent them making refugee claims under Australian law.

Now, the so-called queue jumpers are being made to wait for the UNHCR to approve and resettle them.

Those in Indonesia may have to wait a long time.

In Indonesia, in the last 15 months, only 94 refugees have been resettled by other countries.

Australia accepted only three.


  1. To Deter and Deny - Updates (
    Follow developments in this story on asylum seekers.
  2. Photo Gallery (
    View images from a navy video taken on board SIEV 7.
  3. Interview with Richard Danziger (
    Read Debbie Whitmont's interview with the head of the IOM in Indonesia.
  4. Related Links (
    Discover more about the issues of asylum seekers and Australia's border protection policy on the web.


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