Asylum seekers say they were tricked by navy

January 17, 2014

Bangladeshi asylum seekers back in their home in Cisarua, West Java, after being held on Australian ships for five days then send back on an Australian life-boat. Some hold the papers given to them by Customs officers, others hold the wrist bands they wore on the Australian ships. Photo: Michael Bachelard


Australia has for the first time used one of its new lifeboats to send a group of 56 asylum seekers back to Indonesia in a move that is likely to plunge the bilateral relationship to a new low.

Fairfax Media has interviewed a large group of would-be refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh who scuttled their wooden vessel six days ago in an attempt to avoid being pushed back to Indonesia.

Instead they were picked up by an Australian Navy vessel, HMAS Stuart, and kept overnight before being transferred to a Customs and Border Protection vessel.

The men said they were tricked into thinking they were going to be taken to Christmas Island. But they were put on a small, bright orange lifeboat-style vessel close to the Indonesian shore, with only enough fuel to return there.

The Indonesian man who captained their wooden asylum boat was put at the helm of the Australian lifeboat to complete the three-hour journey.

The news came as Fairfax Media confirmed that Australia escorted another boat back on December 26, bringing to five the total number of confirmed instances of turn-backs, despite Indonesia’s long-running objections to the practice.

Pakistani asylum seeker, Fazal Qadir, 28, said he had set sail from an island off Java on January 5 bound for Christmas Island with 56 people from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq and Palestine on board, along with an Indonesian captain and one crew member. There was one woman with a 20-month-old toddler.

After about three or four days at sea, he said the group was spotted by an Australian aeroplane flying overhead. The boat was already leaking.

"We were very happy [when we saw them] because we thought when the boat went into the water, then they must receive us,” Mr Qadir said.

All of the people on board already knew of other vessels which had been returned to Indonesia, so were determined to be rescued rather than escorted back. One passenger took a piece of wood and prised open the hole that was already in the hull. Others rocked the boat.

When it foundered, two Australian speedboats reached them and the 12 navy personnel on board told the asylum seekers to cling to the side. The toddler was provided with a life jacket, Mr Qadir said.

About 20 minutes later, two Australian Navy vessels, numbered 153 (HMAS Stuart) and 88 (HMAS Maitland) came into view.

Mr Qadir said the group was loaded onto the Stuart and they steamed towards Christmas Island. The men were told, and believed, they would be taken there. But the ship did not dock at the island. "We were going around Christmas all the time. For two days we were in the navy ship," Mr Qadir said.

The group was photographed and interviewed by navy personnel. They gave their names and were provided with white, numbered wrist bands.

On the second day they were transferred to a Customs and Border Protection boat that they could not identify. "We could see Christmas [Island]," the men said.

For three days they remained on the Customs boat.

During this time the men were desperate to call their families to tell them they were all right.

"We wanted to call our home because our families were scared their children were dead, but the navy and Customs would not give us a phone. They said we could call when we reached Christmas Island but they lied to us."

Finally, the men say, they were tricked once more. Mr Qadir said a small orange boat with a weather canopy was tied to the back of the Customs ship. They were told to board it because it would ferry them to Christmas Island.

At the last minute, though, a Customs officer came on board, tossed the asylum seekers a four-page document in a range of languages, and returned to the large ship, which sailed away.

The document, dated December 2013, reads: "You only have enough fuel to reach land in Indonesia. You do not have enough fuel to continue your voyage to Australia.

"The master of your vessel is now responsible for your safety. You must co-operate with the master and not act in a manner that risks your safety. You are responsible for your own actions. Your vessel is not equipped for a voyage to Australia. It is not safe to continue your voyage to Australia.

"If you continue on your journey, the master and crew of your boat will face harsh penalties, which may include a jail term."

The master was the Indonesian captain who had brought them from Java. They showed the compasses, GPS system and satellite phone that were provided with the orange boat.

The men said they were dropped very close to Indonesia. It took only three hours to reach shore.

They and the captain abandoned the Australian boat and walked into the jungle. They said they walked for five hours, including crossing a flood-swollen river, to find help.

They returned to their former houses in the West Java town of Cisarua late on Wednesday night.

On Wednesday Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa described the lifeboat option as "a slippery slope".

"It's one thing to turn back the actual boats on which they have been travelling but another issue, when they are transferred onto another boat and facilitated and told to go in that direction,'' he said.

Mr Morrison declined to comment on the asylum seekers' treatment.

A statement from his office said: "For operational security reasons, the government does not confirm or otherwise comment on reports of on-water activities in relation to Operation Sovereign Borders or disclose details of any operations.''


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