Refugee boats disaster fear
By Mark Phillips
The Australian
24 April 2003

TWO boats carrying about 70 Vietnamese appear increasingly unlikely to reach Australia as fears grow of a disaster at sea.

One boat, carrying 31 people, was reportedly broken down on an island off the coast of Singapore. The second, with 42 passengers, has made little progress since leaving the Indonesian port of Banjarmasin on Sunday.

Two navy vessels are waiting to intercept them.

Australian immigration, Coastwatch and navy officers have been tracking the larger of the two boats since last week.

But they were unaware of the boat with 31 passengers until reports in an Indonesian newspaper yesterday.

The Government yesterday said it was highly unlikely either boat would make it to Australia to become the first boat arrivals since August 2001.

But if they do, the navy will either attempt to turn them back or take them away for processing at an offshore detention centre.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the boats were very small and their passengers were taking a great risk in attempting to sail in open seas.

"It's not safe to assume that either they're safe to travel in the open seas or if they did attempt to reach the open seas, they would in fact get there," Mr Ruddock said.

He said it was believed the boat people were "opportunistic" travellers who had put their savings together to buy a boat, rather than use a criminal people-smuggling ring.

But he warned against anyone encouraging such a hazardous voyage.

There is confusion about the status of the passengers. An interview conducted with one of the boat people cast doubt upon whether they are asylum seekers or would-be economic migrants.

Irfani Rahman and Rudy Setiawan, from the Banjarmasin Post Daily, said the boat people told them they wanted to go to Australia to work or study.

But they could also be asylum seekers. Increasing numbers of Christian minorities known as Montagnards have fled government persecution in Vietnam's central highlands in recent months.

The 15m boat spent two nights and three days moored in the Barito River before continuing its journey from Banjarmasin on Sunday.

Its fate is unknown.

Refugee groups yesterday expressed fears that one of the boats could sink in an echo of the tragic SIEV X, which sank with the loss of 353 lives in October 2001.

Greg Barns, spokesman for the Coalition for Reform of Refugee Policy, said government threats to turn the boats back "show the contempt with which it treats human life".

"There is only one humanitarian option here -- that is for the Australian authorities to get these people off these boats that are death traps and ensure that they are secure," Mr Barns said.

Democrats Leader Andrew Bartlett said Australia should co-operate with Indonesia to deal with the asylum seekers rather than allow them to be pushed to and fro between the two nations.

"For the Government to simply say it's not our problem and we will wait for them to get to international waters is simply leaving them at risk for an unnecessary length of time," he said.

Mr Ruddock said the issues raised would be discussed at a conference on people smuggling in Bali beginning next Monday.

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