Asylum seekers transferred to Indonesia after boat sinks

George Roberts
31 August 2012

MARK COLVIN: Indonesia's search and rescue authority says 54 asylum seekers who were pulled from the water after their boat sank are being transferred to the country's mainland.

Dozens of people are still missing after the boat, bound for Australia, sank near Indonesia's Sunda Strait two days ago. The boat was believed to have up to 150 people on board.

In the past, attempts to send survivors back to Indonesia have proved difficult, or even failed. Asylum seekers have protested or threatened self-harm in response to being sent back.

Our correspondent, George Roberts joins us from the port city of Merak in West Java.

There's been a standoff of this kind before in Merak. You weren't there as correspondent but you would know about it, and it's very, very different this time.

GEORGE ROBERTS: Yes that's right. Well, this time they brought two boats with the survivors on them to the port.

There was a standoff for a while, and the asylum seekers were saying, "We don't want to be here". They even said to the authorities here, "You know, you didn't come to rescue us. It was Australia that saved us, so you're not here to help us. So, why do we have to come to Indonesia?"

They're also concerned because Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, and it doesn't offer any protection for asylum seekers.

They know that their fate now is to go into Indonesian immigration detention, and they're always allegations that asylum seekers get asked for bribes and things like that from authorities - although authorities deny that here.

But, so there was quite a difficult scene here on the port. Some ragged-looking Afghani men, a small boy, there was one woman, there was one body bag as well - and they were all looking pretty worse for wear after a couple of days in the ocean, and pretty emotional charged. One of the guys said that he'd lost his sister. He watched her drown as she slipped away from her fingers in the waves, and he told quite a harrowing story. So it was certainly a bit difficult there for a while, but in the end the authorities won over.

MARK COLVIN: What have they said about how they were treated after they were rescued?

GEORGE ROBERTS: Well, they said that they didn't receive any medical attention or any food on board the Australian Navy ship HMAS Maitland.

Now, they said that was because they didn't have enough food to go around and the Navy only had enough food to support themselves, and that they didn't have any proper medical officers or doctors on board to provide any sort of medical assistance to these guys.

Many of them had cuts and grazes and scrapes and some of them were sunburnt and really, sort of, looked... you know, in pretty poor condition. Some of them passed out on the deck of the boat when they arrived, so they clearly... they were taken away for medical attention here in Merak, but you know, medical attention in Indonesia is not what you'd expect in Australia.

So they will be then taken off... so most of them have been taken to a hotel which will act as a pseudo-immigration detention centre for the time being until they can be transferred to a facility here.

In Indonesia, the immigration detention facility is straining under the pressure of the crackdown on asylum seekers. We're told by the head of immigration, Johnny Mohammed that 95 per cent of people in immigration detention at the moment are asylum seekers, not people who are visa over-stayers or something like that.

MARK COLVIN: Does this reflect a bigger change on behalf of Australia, or on behalf of Indonesia, in terms of the way it's been handled?

GEORGE ROBERTS: Look, it's certainly surprising that this even happened. I mean, we were predicting yesterday - when we heard that most of them were on board the HMAS Maitland - that Maitland couldn't really pass them over to Indonesian authorities because the Government's policy is not to turn boats back, so it sort of didn't really make logical sense that they would turn asylum seekers back - hand them back to a country that doesn't offer protection for refugees or asylum seekers.

So, it was certainly surprising. We were surprised that Indonesia was willing to accept them, because normally Indonesia doesn't really want to have a bar of them. They see them as a problem here and a problem they'd rather be rid of, so they're quite happy to see them taken to Christmas Island. In the past, this year when people have been saved in Indonesian waters, the Navy has taken them straight to Christmas Island.

So this certainly is a change. It is a surprise. A Navy official here told us on the sidelines that the reason they accepted them is really to make it look like they were helping. They didn't want to... it was sort of about image; they didn't want to be seen to you know not, sort of, respect human rights or want to look after and save these people, but ultimately it was Australian Navy officials who ordered them off the boat. The asylum seekers said they were initially told by the Navy personnel that they would be taken to Darwin but instead they were transferred on to an Indonesian ship and told they had to get on to it, because they were in Indonesian waters.

MARK COLVIN: Thank you very much George Roberts in Merak, Indonesia in West Java.


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