AFP warning saves sinking boatpeople


AUSTRALIAN Federal Police gave the warning that led to 120 Afghan asylum-seekers being rescued from a sinking fishing vessel off southwestern Java on Sunday.

Indonesian police and immigration officials negotiate with asylum-seekers rescued from their sinking boat by a tanker that took them to Merak in Java. Picture: AFP Source: AFP

A senior Indonesian police official confirmed the AFP’s role yesterday before the Afghans were forcibly removed from the Singapore-flagged chemical tanker Hermia, which rescued them on Sunday and docked at Merak’s Indah Kiat port on Monday.

Some resisted initially as they were moved to two buses at about 1.30pm. Many cried and shouted “Allah hu Akbar” (God is great) and at least two men struck themselves with pieces of metal, one shouting: “We want to die”.

The 100 men and about 20 youths aged between 14 and 18, all understood to be ethnic Hazaras from Afghanistan and Pakistan, were taken to a Merak hotel.

Speaking earlier from Hermia’s deck, asylum-seekers said they feared being placed in detention centres, although Indonesian officials insisted they would be kept under guard in the hotel to await processing by the UN High Commission for Refugees.

“We were going to Australia, we were in international waters,” said Ali Liaquataliamini.

“We don’t want to be in Indonesian detention.”

One of the four men taken off the boat for negotiations told journalists they had been promised speedy processing and determination of their refugee status.

“You can witness, they promised nobody goes to jail, nobody goes to detention centre,” said Ameri Atiqulllah. “Our boat was in a bad way, we were just sinking.

“Living five years in Indonesian detention is not good for us; we are already far from our families.”

According to police who spoke to the asylum-seekers, they were bussed from Bogor, south of Jakarta, to board the wooden fishing boat about 3am on Sunday, near Tanggerang, on the coast just west of the capital. One asylum-seeker said yesterday he had paid $US5000 ($4861) for his passage to Christmas Island.

A source close to the people-smuggling business in Jakarta identified the boat organisers as Haji Ismail and Iskandar.

However, one of the boat’s engines failed soon after it entered the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra and the other was malfunctioning.

About 7am an AFP staffer in Jakarta called the national water police headquarters to warn “a boat carrying immigrants heading for Australia was having problems near the Banten coast,” the unit’s operational control chief, Gunardi, told The Australian.

A spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority yesterday confirmed that Australia had played no role in the rescue of the Afghan asylum-seekers, apart from the tip-off.

“AMSA’s Rescue Co-ordination Centre initially received a call from a passenger onboard the vessel in distress and all information was passed to BASARNAS (Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Organisation) for implementation of response actions,” she said.

Lieutenant Colonel Gunardi despatched a fast patrol boat from Merak and Banten water police issued an alert to local fishing boats and shipping in Sunda Strait. Hermia, with 19 crew bound for Singapore from Australia, is understood to have found the stricken boat about 8am Sunday.

The water police said it was found seven nautical miles south of Panaitan Island, off southwest Banten and still within Indonesian territorial waters. Several asylum-seekers claimed the boat had earlier reached international waters but was driven back by currents and waves.

The Gillard government maintains the future of the Afghans is a question for Indonesia.

“That matter is a matter for the Indonesian government,” an Immigration Department spokeswoman said yesterday.

It’s a view backed by Australian National University international law professor Don Rothwell, who said there was no legal obligation on Australia to involve itself in settling the asylum-seekers.

Professor Rothwell said Singapore would have no obligation to asylum-seekers who would inevitably “fall into the Indonesian system”.

He said there were significant differences between this case and that of the Australian Customs vessel the Oceanic Viking, which came to the aid of about 80 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers within Indonesia’s search and rescue zone in 2009.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the refusal of the Australia bound asylum-seekers to disembark from the tanker was “yet another consequence of Labor’s border policy failures”.