Boat not Australia's problem: Government
By Rob Taylor
The Age
April 21 2003

A vessel carrying Vietnamese boatpeople towards Australia after sailing from an Indonesian port was in poor condition and may not even complete its journey, the federal government said today.

The boat carrying 42 Vietnamese sailed on Saturday for Australia after Indonesian authorities supplied it with fuel, food, water and medicine, Indonesian police said.

"The boat left late on Saturday and none of the passengers had been allowed to go ashore," First Sergeant Mulyadi of the marine police office at Balikpapan on Borneo island said.

He said the boat had anchored at the mouth of the Barito river near Banjarmasin in South Kalimantan on Friday after it ran out of fuel.

Local authorities, fearing the passengers could be infected with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, barred them from landing.

"Health officials went on the boat to check the health of the passengers and found that none had SARS," sergeant Mulyadi said.

The Vietnamese were given fuel, food and water, donated by various companies and offices in Banjarmasin, and told to leave the area.

The Jakarta Post quoted the head of Banjarmasin port as saying the boat was overcrowded and lacked a navigation system and safety equipment, but was told to leave for security reasons.

It's departure came as Indonesia and Australia prepared to host a regional conference in Bali next week on ways to combat people-smuggling.

But a spokesman for Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the Vietnamese vessel was not yet an Australian problem.

"It's in Indonesian waters at the moment, so it's an Indonesian responsibility," he told AAP.

"We don't send our ships into Indonesian territorial waters.

"We don't even know if the boat will reach here, because it's not in very good condition."

The spokesman said it was unclear whether the boat had mechanical problems, or whether its hull was unsound, placing it in danger of sinking.

"Apparently it's been a fairly slow trip for it and there is, I guess, concern for the safety of the people on board if it's not in very good condition," he said.

He said Australia had contacted Indonesia to try and get more details on where the boat was now located.

Mr Ruddock's spokesman denied there had been a breakdown in measures agreed between the two countries to try and halt the flow of asylum seekers.

"We're aware that they've been picking up fuel and food, but Indonesia also has to work within its laws and we'll be continuing to discuss with them what we can do about this," he said.

He said it was too early to say what would happen to those on board if they reached Australian waters.

In October 2001 another boat carrying more than 400 mostly Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers sank en route to Australia and 353 people drowned, including 150 children.

The boat sank in the Indian Ocean between Indonesia and Australia's Christmas Island.

Indonesian newspapers said the latest boat left the Vietnamese coastal city of Soe Trang and had already berthed in Indonesia's Natuna islands to take on fuel and food. If the boat reaches Australia, it would be the first vessel carrying asylum seekers to reach the country since 359 people landed at Christmas Island on August 22, 2001.

The last vessel to attempt a landing was turned around by the navy in December 2001, with those on board sent to offshore detention centres under the so-called Pacific Solution.


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