Asylum-seeker boat sinks, killing five
April 13, 2013
Michael Bachelard and Bianca Hall
At least five asylum seekers are believed to have drowned after their boat sank in the Sunda Strait while on the way from Indonesia to Australia.
Details of the unfolding tragedy emerged after authorities in Indonesia spent the day scrambling for information following reports that an asylum seeker vessel had sunk earlier on Friday.
But Habibullah Hashimi, one of 14 men plucked from the water by fishermen off the coast of Sukabumi in West Java, has said that he was on a boat that sank on Wednesday morning.
The 29-year-old confirmed that at least five other passengers had drowned, adding that he had been in the water for about 24 hours before help finally came.
There were 72 people aboard the vessel, he said.
All were ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan.
"The ship just broke," Mr Hashimi said.
"We saw about five people dead. They were in the water."
Mr Hashimi's group had linked arms as they struggled to survive.
"The sea kept moving us around," he said.
Mr Hashimi, who was recuperating in Bogor, about two hours drive from Jakarta, said that the boat he was on sank at about 11am local time (2pm AEST) on Wednesday, about nine hours after setting off for Christmas Island.
The asylum-seeker vessel plunged Indonesia's search and rescue agency into disarray.
Mr Firdauzi, a spokesman from the agency Basarnas, initially said that fishermen had rescued 66 asylum seekers after their boat sank in the Sunda Strait on the way to Christmas Island.
But he later changed that, saying perhaps only 14 had been rescued, leaving up to 58 people unaccounted for, and perhaps drowned. The boat had been carrying 72 Afghans and Iranians in total.
Basarnas failed to dispatch a rescue boat at all during the day on Friday, and at one stage, water police even asked Fairfax Media journalists to give them advice about where exactly the boat had sunk.
Two boats and a helicopter may be dispatched to search for the missing refugees on Saturday morning if a meeting of Indonesian officials deems it necessary.
But Mr Firdauzi blamed the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) for the confusion, saying the Australian agency gave misleading information.
An AMSA spokeswoman confirmed late on Friday that the Australian agency had been "providing Basarnas with all information it has received ... in an effort to assist".
The fatal boat appears to have set off from Java’s western coast on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning and quickly run into trouble.
An AMSA spokeswoman said yesterday they had been informed by another Australian agency, which she would not name, that the boat needed assistance.
But at about midnight local time on Thursday night (3am AEST) on Friday, it sank. As the incident happened well within Indonesia's search and rescue zone, Australia was not asked for and nor did it provide any assistance.
But Mr Firdauzi said the central office of Basarnas had not been informed of the sinking until 7am on Friday local time (10am AEST) — about seven hours after the Australians became aware of the boat's distress. The Jakarta office of Basarnas, which was initially put in charge of coordinating the rescue attempt, was not informed until two hours later — 9am local time, or midday AEST, he said.
For the remainder of the day, Basarnas provided various information about the number of people rescued by fishermen, saying at one point that 66 had been rescued. Mr Firdauzi revised that later to say only 14 were safe.
Basarnas appeared to have little idea of where the sinking had occurred. There was doubt whether it was off the island of Java or Sumatra, and late on Friday it shifted the command centre for the incident to a different part of its own organisation.
Mr Firdauzi said Basarnas had had not dispatched a rescue boat because: “Australia only said it's on the southern part of the Sunda Strait, so it's quite a big area.”
Basarnas is not equipped with ocean-going vessels. Its fibre-glass hulled rescue boats cannot venture into open ocean. Water police boats, some donated by Australia two years ago for search and rescue operations, were also kept in the dock.
Basarnas instead put out a radio bulletin to all shipping in the area to watch for survivors. In the past Basarnas has been criticised for delays because warnings which arrive from Australia by fax at night must wait until morning until someone comes into the office to read them.
AMSA and customs have denied the passengers on the boat contacted any Australian agency, but will not say how it came by its information.
A people smuggler source told Fairfax Media he believed the boat which sank was sent by a people smuggler called “Sikandar,” who is notorious for skimping on the quality of the vessels. He was responsible for a sinking last October that cost 33 lives.
The source said about 120 people had wanted to board the boat, but it was too small, so more than 40 were turned away.
Sikandar was working with two other men, Ali Agha and Ahmadi, both of whom are linked to Aman Rezai, one of the most prominent and active of all the Indonesian people smugglers.
The source said one of the passengers had called a friend in the West Java town of Bogor as the boat set off to say it was too small and overcrowded, and to "Pray for us".
Australia has seen more than 80 boats arrive this year carrying about 5000 people, with a big boost since the end of the monsoon season made the sea crossing from Indonesia safer.
Two people lost their lives last month when a boat carrying 96 people sank north of Christmas Island as it was being boarded by Customs officers.
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