Boat people heading for Australia
The Malaysian Star
22 April 2003
SYDNEY, Australia (AP) - The Australian government on Tuesday was monitoring a boatload of Vietnamese asylum seekers that was turned away from Indonesia over the weekend, reportedly amid fears their boat could be harboring the SARS virus.
The boat was prevented from docking in Indonesia Saturday and headed instead for northern Australia after being resupplied by locals on Borneo island, an Indonesian police official said Monday.
The boat still was in international waters early Tuesday.
The decision by Jakarta to give the asylum seekers supplies and send them toward Australia will put a fresh strain on relations between the two countries a week before the two nations host a conference aimed at increasing cooperation on combatting people smuggling.
Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio said the decision was motivated by fears among Indonesian villagers some of the asylum seekers could have severe acute respiratory syndrome, the flu-like virus that has killed at least 218 people world wide, most of them in Hong Kong and China.
Five Vietnamese have died of SARS.
Jakarta's decision "does not surprise me in the sense that Indonesia has always taken the view that in relation to people who were seeking to transit that they had no specific obligation to them,'' Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
Ruddock said Canberra already had contacted Indonesian authorities to discuss the boat people.
"At this stage, the response is Indonesia will do what it can do in relation to the matter,'' Ruddock added.
Indonesian marine police spokesman Sgt. Mulyadi said Monday the 42 people on board - including 13 women and 10 children - received food, water and diesel fuel after briefly docking at the mouth of the Barito river in south Kalimantan.
Mulyadi said police asked them to leave late Saturday after they claimed they were "on their way to Australia.''
He said health officials checked the condition of the asylum seekers, who were not carrying any documents.
In October 2001, a boat packed with Middle Eastern asylum seekers sank on its way to Australia, killing at least 353 people on board.
Asylum seekers from the Middle East usually pass Indonesian waters on their way to Australia.
The two governments agreed last year to cooperate in blocking asylum seekers from transiting through Indonesia.
If the boat reaches Australian waters, it will be the first to arrive in more than a year.
The flow of asylum seekers to Australia dried up after the government launched a crackdown in 2001 - using the navy to intercept people smugglers' ships and transporting those on board to detention centers on the impoverished Pacific islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. - AP