New trouble for Vietnamese boat
April 24 2003
By Meaghan Shaw
A boat carrying Vietnamese asylum seekers has broken down on an island off Singapore en route from Indonesia to Australia and its engine is irreparable, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said yesterday.
The boat, carrying 31 Vietnamese people, left Vietnam on March 25 and arrived last week in Tanjung Pinang, near Singapore, where local officials organised engine repairs, refuelling and food and water.
Indonesian immigration authorities then escorted the boat into international waters before it returned with engine problems to Telang Island, in the Riau Archipelago.
It was the second boat this week revealed to be carrying Vietnamese asylum seekers who reportedly are heading to Australia.
Mr Downer said the other boat, carrying 42 Vietnamese, was being monitored by the Indonesians, although a spokesman for Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the boat was missing. It left South Kalimantan in Borneo on Saturday after being given provisions by Indonesians.
Mr Downer said the boats raised "sensitive questions" for Australia's relationship with Indonesia, but it was "extremely important not to handle this through a process of megaphone diplomacy".
He said the Government was making every effort to tackle people smuggling at a regional level and the fact the two nations were co-hosting a second people-smuggling conference next week showed how seriously the Indonesians took the issue.
The relationship between Australia and Indonesia was not strained, he said.
"We have a good relationship," Mr Downer said.
But Opposition Leader Simon Crean said Australia's relationship with Indonesia was so diminished that "they haven't even got to base one" in negotiating an agreement on people smuggling.
Australian Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett urged the Government to remove the 70 asylum seekers from the boats and process their refugee claims in Indonesia to ensure their lives were protected.
He also said Labor should reassess its policy, which supported the Government turning boats around.
"The lesson should have been learnt from the tragic deaths of over 350 people with the SIEV-X tragedy in 2001," he said. "We shouldn't allow the same mistake to happen again."
Vietnamese Community in Australia president Trung Doan urged the Government to accept the asylum seekers as "tens of people" was "hardly a wave", and it was unlikely others would follow.
He said the asylum seekers were fleeing persecution and they would not have risked their lives travelling to Aus-tralia by boat if they were not desperate.