Asylum seekers left for dead in Indonesian boat tragedy


Survivors at a makeshift care centre at Prigi beach in East Java, Indonesia. Picture: Lukman Bintoro

THE captain and crew of a stricken fishing boat put on life jackets and swam for their lives, leaving up to 200 people to die in one of the worst disasters involving Australia-bound asylum seekers.

There were about 250 asylum seekers crammed on the boat, which capsized off the Indonesian island of Java, as refugees panicked while it rocked in 4m waves.

“The captain and six crew took the life vests and started swimming away,” Saed Mohammad Zia, 18, of Pakistan said.

“They were all from Indonesia. We lost sight of them in the big waves and we never saw them again.

“We don’t know if they were rescued.”

Indonesian authorities believe up to 200 people died after the wooden boat they had crammed into broke apart in stormy seas.

The severely overloaded vessel, stacked to more than twice its 100-person capacity, capsized 30km off Prigi beach, Java, on Saturday as refugees panicked.

“We sent out four boats and two helicopters, but so far we haven’t spotted anyone else floating. It’s very likely they have all drowned,” National Search and Rescue Agency spokesman Gagah Prakoso said last night.

“It’s impossible even for a good swimmer with a life vest to swim to shore safely in such extreme conditions. When boats sink like this, the bodies usually surface on the third day.”

Bad weather and waves of up to five metres hampered rescue efforts yesterday with 300 rescuers including navy and police officers deployed to comb the sea for bodies.

About 40 children were believed to have been among those aboard the boat, which could have netted people smugglers more than $1 million.

Thirty-four asylum seekers clung to a capsized fishing boat for eight hours watching the bodies of their families, mostly women and children, float by before being discovered by a fisherman.

“We were just praying to God that someone would help us, we thought it was the last of our life story,” Esmat Adine, 24, of Afghanistan said.

“People were dying in front of us.

“The bodies were lying in front of us in the water, women and children mostly.”

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