Fishing boat tragedy highlights refugees' plight

Officials say a boat with 418 Middle Eastern asylum seekers sank off Indonesia last week, killing 374.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Sometime during his 36 hours of struggle at sea, Jalal Mohsen realized he was probably going to die. He and 417 other refugees bound for Australia - mostly Iraqis, but also Iranians, Afghans, Palestinians, and Algerians - were shoulder to shoulder on the deck of a 50-foot wooden fishing boat designed to carry a quarter that many.

They'd been in danger from the moment they left Indoensia's Sumatra island. But now, at 3 in the afternoon on Oct. 19, the engine had failed and the tiny boat was left to yaw helplessly in a heaving sea.

"When the boat pitched to the left, I saw women and children losing their grip and falling into the sea. When it pitched to the right, I saw the same thing,'' says Mohsen, an Iraqi. "Then she started to go under."

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He clung to a plank for 20 hours before an Indonesian fishing boat rescued him. He was one of only 44 survivors, most of whom lost at least one relative in the tragedy.

The deaths of the 374 passengers - 300 of whom were women and children - puts a spotlight on Indonesia's role as a way station for desperate Middle Eastern refugees, on Indonesia as a geographically perfect staging point, and on Australia as a desireable destination for illegal migrants.

The flow to Australia has grown considerably since 1999, mostly because of perceptions that asylum applications are easier there than in Europe or the US, says Richard Danziger, an official at the International Organization for Migration's (IOM) office in Jakarta. IOM is providing food and shelter to the survivors and 1,000 other Middle Eastern migrants stranded in Indonesia.

In recent years, an alarmed Australia has been tightening its rules. "Every few years, you get a new 'hot' country for migrants. In 1997, it was the Netherlands. Then they clamped down," says Mr. Danziger. "Now Australia is clamping down."

Yet they will still come, Danziger and other migration experts agree, particularly from Saddam Husein's Iraq and the Taliban's Afghanistan, two regimes suffering economically under US sanctions.

"The US won't have us, Europe won't have us, no one wants us. But we'd be crazy to go back," says Rifaat Al-Badri, an Iraqi who used to work as an editorial cartoonist in Iraq. The issue will be discussed at next month's annual meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations in Brunei.

But Australia has been complaining for months that Indonesia is doing little to address the problem of unscrupulous people-smugglers.

Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said his country has known the identity of the smuggler behind the latest tragedy for months. "We've passed it on to Indonesia already on a number of occasions and he's one of the people we've sought," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Mohammad Zayer, a young Iraqi mechanic who deserted the Army after his conscription, says he and three cousins were in the Jakarta suburb of Cisarua when an Egyptian man named Abu Kosay approached them, offering to put them on a boat to Australia for $1,000 each. He even showed them a picture of the boat: It looked "like a small cruise ship."

Instead, it was a dilapidated fishing boat. Zayer said he and many others didn't want to get on - but that Mr. Kosay had brought 30 armed men, some wearing Indonesian police uniforms, and told them they had no choice. "This man, his words were like honey and we trusted him,'' says Zayer. "Instead, he was a devil." Zayer's three cousins perished.

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