Not our job: no search as 160 boat people lost at sea

Andrew Clennell
14 December 2000
Sydney Morning Herald

More than 160 illegal immigrants are feared dead after two boats apparently sank while on their way to Australia, but local rescue authorities are not conducting a search because they say the incident happened outside their area of responsibility.

Some 163 people are feared dead after reports, described by the Immigration Minister, Mr Ruddock, as 'credible', that the boats sank last week while sailing to the Ashmore Islands, off Western Australia.

Intelligence agencies are trying to find four survivors reported to have been rescued by a Japanese tanker on its way to Malaysia.

Although Coastwatch is conducting routine patrols mostly by air the Australian Maritime Safety Authority has mounted no search for the missing boats, saying the incident appeared to have happened outside its area of responsibility.

It informed its Indonesian counterpart, BASARNAS, yesterday and was waiting for a response late yesterday afternoon.

An authority spokesman, Mr Brian Hill, said yesterday: 'We were advised about lunchtime a vessel carrying 87 people might have sunk, possibly in Indonesian waters, some time in the last two weeks.

'Obviously we'll be liaising with Coastwatch but at this point we won't be involved in the search.'

Mr Ruddock defended the lack of a large search, saying: 'I have asked all our resources be tasked to not only confirm what has happened but to see if there are further survivors.

'If people are intent on getting into vulnerable vessels on very dangerous seas, there are risks associated with it.'

The Government became aware early yesterday of reports of the boats sinking, and was told they were due into Ashmore at the weekend.

The people smuggler involved had apparently sent the boats into tropical Cyclone Sam and other stormy conditions.

According to some reports, he has fled Indonesia after being chased by relatives of those feared dead.

An immigration source said that rather being the 'Mr Big' of his syndicate, the man could be either the chief contact person or a person known to those waiting in Indonesia to travel here to apply for refugee status.

But he is understood to be less experienced than some smugglers, who have held off during the stormy weather.

The Government's information is believed to have come from 'informants' such as those who had fallen out with people smugglers and Indonesian police.

Mr Ruddock announced yesterday that he had asked Government authorities to investigate after reports from intelligence agencies that two boats, one containing 80 people and the other 87, had sunk.

A spokesman for Mr Ruddock said there had been a 'less solid' report that a tanker had picked up four survivors.

The Government is checking with foreign agencies to see if those four can be found because they are crucial to confirming the deaths.

The immigration source said that while the four may want to get away as quickly as possible, they may be angry and 'want retribution and want to talk'.

More than 500 boat people are thought to have died while on their way to Australia this year, after the disappearance of more than 350 people on three separate boats in March.

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