Hope fades for missing boat people

13 April 2000
Sydney Morning Herald

The suspected sinking of a boat which was on its way to Australia carrying up to 220 people was the worst ever in the region if it happened and possibly one of the worst ever in the world, the Federal Government said yesterday.

It said it was relying on intelligence it received that a boat containing between 170 and 220 people left Indonesia for Australia on March 24 or 25.

The boat, which should then have landed in Australian waters within a day or two, had not been sighted since. A spokesman for the Minister for Immigration, Mr Ruddock, said last night that the number lost ``could even be more" than 220, and intelligence operatives were confident it had not returned to Indonesia.

No specific search had been launched for the vessel, the spokesman said, because ``where do you look?" ``It's a big ocean, and after two days the boat could have been anywhere; and if it wasn't on Christmas Island, maybe it was just a bit slower, and then another day [passes].

``Without any distress reports to work on, it would be nearly impossible to begin a search which had any meaning, without any sort of location."

Coastwatch and the Navy did regular patrols between Australia's north and Indonesia, ``so were aware of the reports of the boat", the spokesman said.

Reports also suggest that the boat was in shoddy condition, that it hit a reef, docked at West Java and then continued towards Christmas Island.

In confirming the boat continued on to Australia, the Government is also relying on anecdotal evidence from detention centres where detainees are said to be making extra phone calls to assure their loved ones they are still alive.

The Government describes as highly unlikely a chance the boat made it to Australia without being noticed. Mr Ruddock said yesterday that the worst such disaster on record was about 500 people dying on a boat travelling between Somalia and Yemen.

More than 3,000 boat people, mostly from the Middle East, have arrived in Australia in the past 12 months as part of a people smuggling racket through Indonesia.

``We understand there's still a number of people in various parts of Asia and Indonesia ... so it's not going to surprise us if more people come," Mr Ruddock's spokesman said.

Yesterday Mr Ruddock defended the condition of Australia's detention centres for boat people after the escape and discovery of two Iraqi men from the Woomera centre in South Australia.

He responded to Amnesty International's suggestions that boat people should not be detained by saying that he had previously offered payment to non-government organisations to house boat people while their refugee status was determined, but they had refused his offer.

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