Indonesia helps refugees sail on
Herald Sun
22 April 2003

A SMALL, dilapidated wooden boat crowded with 31 Vietnamese boatpeople is heading for Australia after Indonesian authorities restocked it with fuel and food and checked its passengers for SARS.

The Federal Government yesterday confirmed that the Australian embassy in Jakarta knew last Thursday that the 15m boat was expected to enter Australia illegally.

The boat left South Kalimantan on Saturday afternoon after Indonesian marine authorities raised money for food and $550 worth of fuel, according to local media reports.

Health officials also checked its passengers for severe acute respiratory syndrome before ordering the boat on its way.

But a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said there was no tension with Indonesia over allowing the boat to continue its journey.

"In this case, the intended destination is not known... there might be some supposition that it's bound for Australia," he said. "We have expressed our concerns about the vessel's seaworthiness to Indonesian authorities."

The boat is being monitored by Indonesia and Australia although the overcrowded vessel is in such bad condition it may not complete the journey.

Mr Downer will fly to Bali this month to meet Indonesian counterparts to discuss ways to combat people smuggling.

Just one week ago, Indonesia deported to Egypt a suspected people smuggler who organised the boat voyage in which 374 asylum seekers drowned on their way to Australia.

The Federal Government wanted to try the accused people-smuggler, Abu Quassey, in Australia.

If the Vietnamese boat arrives in Australia, it will be the first illegal boat entry in 15 months and arrives just days after Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock declared Australia's so-called Pacific solution an enormous success.

The boat left Vietnam on April 6 bound for Australia but ran out of fuel at the mouth of the Barito River in South Kalimantan, according to the Jakarta Post.

Banjarmasin port administrator Zulretmika said the boat did not have a navigation system and safety equipment.

It was also overcrowded with as many as 42 people on board, according to local reports.

"If we were to be governed by safety considerations, we wouldn't allow the boat to leave," the port administrator reportedly said.

"But based upon security considerations, it's better that they leave as soon as possible."

A spokesman for Mr Ruddock said if the boat encountered difficulties it was not Australia's problem until it entered Australian waters.

Until then it was Indonesia's problem.

"Its precise whereabouts are not clear," the spokesman said. "It appears to be not in a good condition and travelling very slowly.

"We don't even know if it will make it out of the Indonesian archipelago."

He said the Vietnamese boatpeople should have returned to Vietnam after running out of fuel in Indonesian waters.

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