Minister's reports of 500 deaths premature

Andrew Clennell
Sydney Morning Herald
18 December 2000

More than 500 people all but declared dead by the Immigration Minister may still be alive.

Mr Ruddock admitted as much yesterday after more than 200 boat people in two boats arrived to the north of Australia.

He conceded that an announcement he made earlier in the year that another 350 people may have been on boats that sunk had never been confirmed.

'The reports were on the basis of credible information received by us,' he said. 'But can I vouch absolutely for the veracity of every report and every statement made to us? No, I can't.'

On Wednesday, Mr Ruddock said more than 160 people may have died at sea, based on overnight reports that they had left Indonesia in two boats but not arrived at Ashmore Islands as expected last weekend.

The reports were 'corroborated' with several sources. This information, together with a 'less solid' report on Wednesday morning that four survivors had been picked up by a tanker a report that has not materialised prompted Mr Ruddock to make his announcement.

But relatives of the missing had their hopes lifted yesterday when they received word from Indonesia that the two boats were about to arrive the news coming just before it was revealed that two other boats, each with more than 100 people on board, had arrived at Ashmore.

There is some evidence to suggest that boats have sunk in the past or had difficulties at sea. These include a confidential document obtained by the Herald which reports that in one instance two boats drifted about lost before being rescued by a fishing vessel.

But the reports of sinking boats Mr Ruddock has revealed this year are all unconfirmed.

Yesterday he maintained it was still possible that the boats, which he believed contained 80 and 87 people, were lost, but conceded it was also possible they were the same vessels that had arrived at Ashmore Islands at the weekend.

The Opposition's spokesman on immigration, Mr Con Sciacca, said he was prepared to give the minister the benefit of the doubt, but 'in the event it turns out these people are the 163 he says perished, I think it's absolutely atrocious'.

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