AN Afghan asylum-seeker arrested after several days lost at sea claims Australian Federal Police told him a helicopter and boats would be sent to rescue him and up to 85 others.
Ali Yewar, 28, a passenger on an asylum-seeker vessel that was bound for Australia and feared lost in Indonesian waters, told The Australian yesterday he called the AFP and gave readings from an onboard GPS device to pinpoint the location of the group’s boat as it foundered off the eastern Indonesian island of Flores.
Mr Yewar, also known as Juma Khan, said no help had arrived.
“For four nights we drifted but no one came to help us as they promised,” he said. “I spoke to Australians, to Indonesians, but no one came. Our boat was being pushed around in the heavy wind, our engine was seized and the boat was full of water.”
Mr Yewar was aboard an asylum-seeker vessel that has perplexed and confused Australian and Indonesian authorities since it was first reported missing.
It was initially thought lost at sea last Tuesday, then prematurely reported as found by Foreign Minister Stephen Smith late on Wednesday. Over the weekend, some of the boat’s Afghan passengers were arrested by Indonesian authorities on Sumbawa island and an empty boat was found near the island town of Bima.
Mr Smith said yesterday the passengers were safe but not all accounted for. “Our most recent advice from Indonesian officials is that the vessel has been located and the passengers dispersed,” he said.
“Embassy officials, AFP officers in our office in Jakarta, have spoken to two of the passengers who were on board and the telephone advice from the passengers to the AFP officers is that all of the passengers on board are safe – that’s the most recent advice I have.
“They’ve dispersed, so not all passengers are accounted for, but the advice that we have from two passengers is that all the passengers were safe prior to their dispersal.”
However, Mr Yewar said he feared his cousin was among a group of asylum-seekers from the boat who may have drowned.
Mr Smith’s announcement came as another suspected asylum-seeker vessel arrived at Christmas Island. The wooden boat, with its cargo of 73 passengers and crew, was the 17th vessel to arrive this year. More than 900 undocumented migrants and 35 crew have been intercepted in Australian waters this year.
The ship was intercepted 80 nautical miles off Christmas Island by the Royal Australian Navy patrol boat Armidale.
The passengers were yesterday being processed for identity, health and security checks before joining hundreds of others on the island’s immigration detention centre, which is close to capacity.
Authorities have not said where the suspected asylum-seekers had travelled from.
Mr Yewar, who was yesterday being held on Sumbawa, said that after the boat he was travelling in started drifting, he raised the alarm. This included, he said, calling Jakarta-based AFP officers, who alerted their Indonesian counterparts to the group’s plight.
Mr Yewar had also sent an SOS text message to contacts in Pakistan, who relayed it to Australian refugee advocate Ian Rintoul. Mr Rintoul called Australian authorities to ensure they knew of the group’s predicament.
“The Australian police asked me if the boat had a GPS,” Mr Yewar said. “I didn’t know what a GPS was, but I asked the captain and he said, ‘it’s this’. I told the police the reading on it.”
The Indonesian authorities were given those co-ordinates by the AFP in an SMS that was subsequently distributed widely through various agencies, but they were unable to locate the boat.
An AFP spokesman refused to confirm whether it had received a call from anyone on the boat. Nor would it confirm or deny whether any of its officers spoke to people on the boat. The spokesman also refused to detail whether information was passed on to the Indonesian police.
Mr Yewar said the crew eventually dropped the asylum-seekers on an unknown island and left.
He admitted the group’s intention had been to sail to Australia where members would seek asylum, “because of course I like Australia and I want to be in Australia, and I promise that, whether it is illegally or legally, I will keep trying to do that”.
Mr Yewar, who is from Kabul, refused to say where the boat’s voyage had begun or to give any details of the people-smuggling agents he had used to make the journey.
At least 29 of the original members of that group are now in detention on Sumbawa, an island to the east of Bali and a common staging point for boat journeys to Australia.
Mr Yewar said he was worried that up to 30 more of the group had gone missing.
He said he had no idea whether that was because they had gone overboard while the boat was battling heavy seas off Flores where it first ran into trouble, or whether it was because they had disappeared after being dropped on the unnamed island.
Indonesian police said local fishermen had transported the asylum-seekers to the town of Bima, on Sumbawa, where they were eventually arrested.
Some were seized at a bus terminal, apparently preparing to head west back to Jakarta through a series of island-hopping connections. Others, including Mr Yewar, were found in a local village.
Mr Yewar said he had applied in Jakarta three months ago for refugee status through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – an increasingly common way for people fleeing war and persecution in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and elsewhere to speed up their formal resettlement in countries such as Australia.
Many refugees use the resultant informal Indonesian visa to arrange the dangerous journey by sea to Australia, where they hope their resettlement attempts will be dealt with even faster.
Responding to the arrival of the lastest asylum-seeker vessel at Christmas Island, the Rudd government said the upsurge in asylum-seeker arrivals was part of a global phenomenon linked to instability and war in countries such as Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently Sri Lanka.
“The boat was detected before it reached the contigious zone and our migration zone and was kept under constant surveillance,” Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor said in a statement on the weekend.
“This demonstrates that our system of border protection is strong and effective.
“The group will be transferred to Christmas Island where they will undergo security, identity and health checks to establish their identity and reasons for travel.”
The latest boatload of arrivals brings the total number of people detained on Christmas Island to 725.
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