Patrol bungled asylum boat hunt
By staff reporters
3 July 2003

BORDER protection agency Coastwatch mounted an extensive surveillance operation in the wrong stretch of water after being warned on Saturday that a boatload of Vietnamese had left Indonesia bound for Australia.

The 56 men, women and children were transferred last night from their wooden vessel to HMAS Canberra, which will take them into detention on Christmas Island.

The bungled surveillance came after the officials made the wrong choice between two conflicting pieces of information on the boat's route.

Information also emerged yesterday that at least one Australian of Vietnamese descent - named in an Indonesian newspaper as Sandra Nguyen - was aboard the boat intercepted just kilometres off the West Australian coast on Tuesday.

The illegal vessel came within 1km of Port Hedland.

Port Hedland senior ranger Lee Vallance yesterday said he had alerted Customs officers to the vessel on Tuesday, after noticing it near the port.

Mr Vallance, who was on a routine patrol, said the asylum boat would have taken only about 10 minutes to make it into the port and would have gone unchallenged.

For most of yesterday the asylum-seekers sat huddled in the centre of the 15m junk-like fishing vessel yesterday, as men in military fatigues stood over them and patrol boats circled.

The Australian, watching from a chartered vessel, was ordered to keep 400m from the junk or face investigation for quarantine breaches.

Having spent all day encircled by Customs, navy and rescue vessels about 10km north of Port Hedland, the asylum-seekers were transferred to the frigate as night fell.

The boat almost managed to beat the Howard Government's hardline Pacific solution asylum-seeker policy by reaching the mainland despite immigration officials in Indonesia informing the Australian embassy of its two possible routes.

The International Organisation for Migration's chief of mission in Jakarta, Steve Cook, said yesterday his officials last week had interviewed people on the island of Panaitan, where the boat had docked for about a week.

The boat had collected fuel and food supplies. But the officials and Indonesian immigration officers, who intended to take them into detention, did not arrive on the island until a day after the boat had left.

One report from island residents said the boat planned to hug the coast of Indonesia until it reached West Timor, then sail south to Australia's northern coast, while another said the boat would head straight to the West Australian coast.

Mr Cook said he understood Australian authorities had mounted a surveillance operation on only one of the routes due to a lack of resources.

"They didn't have the resources (to search both stretches of water)," he said.

The chief of the Immigration Department for the Serang region, which includes the island of Panaitan, yesterday said the boatpeople had been assisted by police or the military and government-employed forest rangers.

Daud Afifi also said officials had told him that at least one person on the boat spoke fluent English.

"In the name of humanity, they helped those people," he said.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty said there was no evidence Indonesian officials from the armed forces had resupplied the vessel in Panaitan.

"If that turns out to be true, it just serves to emphasise the need for the co-operation that we've had," he said.

When the asylum-seekers reach Christmas Island they will be processed under the so-called Pacific solution, which means they cannot access Australian courts.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock yesterday defended the failure to find the boat until it had almost hit land, saying even with accurate intelligence it was difficult to find a single vessel in the open ocean.

"We certainly were aware from news reporting in Indonesia that there was a vessel in Indonesia in West Java at the end of last week," he said.

Mr Ruddock rejected suggestions Indonesia was to blame for failing to intercept the boatpeople.

Indonesia signed an agreement in 1999 to help prevent refugees from reaching Australia.

"I think it has to be seen as an isolated incident and certainly not a lack of co-operation on Indonesia's part," Mr Ruddock said.

Reporting by David King, Kimina Lyall, Sian Powell, Patricia Karvelas and Belinda Hickman


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