220 boat people feared drowned

The Age

Up to 220 men, women and children are believed to have died in the worst known boat-people disaster in the waters between Australia and Indonesia.

A large boat carrying between 170 and 220 people from the Middle East went missing in heavy seas several weeks ago after leaving the main Indonesian island of Java.

It had been bound for Christmas Island, according to intelligence reports from Australian agents in Indonesia. The journey should have taken no more than two days.

But it sailed into a monsoonal storm and disappeared, leaving many illegal immigrants already in Australia frantic about friends and relatives.

Each of the passengers on the missing boat would have paid between $5000 and $40,000 for their journey from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey, according to government sources.

The sources told The Age that Australian Federal Police agents, in Indonesia to keep track of a people-smuggling racket, received reliable reports in late March that a large boat had sailed from the west coast of Java, bound for Christmas Island.

Witnesses had reported a storm at sea, and meteorological data had confirmed it.

Australian Customs Coastwatch planes had been unable to detect the boat. The AFP agents established that it had not returned to Java, and their informants were convinced it had sunk.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock revealed the tragedy yesterday, after referring to incidents in which smaller boats had gone missing.

"We believe now on advice that we have received, and it is certainly information that is in our detention centres, that there may have been a far more serious incident involving a tragic loss of life," he said.

"Suggestions are that a boat with something of the order of 170 or 220 people may have founded en route to Australia.

"Among many of the people in detention centres there have been calls made to overseas destinations to assure family members that they had in fact arrived safely, given the reports that so many people had lost their lives in this incident."

A spokesman for Mr Ruddock said the only assumption that could be drawn was that the boat had foundered at sea and all lives had been lost.

He said it was known that the boat was carrying men, women and children, but he could not give a breakdown of the numbers.

Reports of boats foundering on the smuggling route to Australia were not unusual.

"But this is by far the biggest number we know of," the spokesman said.

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