Asylum Not Required, Say Boat People

Asylum not required, say boat people

Mark Forbes, Jakarta
The Age
December 18, 2007

THEY are the asylum seekers who never were. The 16 Indonesian boat people rescued last month amid claims of a new Tampa incident said they did not want to come to Australia but were blown off course travelling to an Indonesian island.

Speaking to The Age at a Jakarta hotel after their deportation from Christmas Island at the weekend, the group were emphatic that they never sought asylum and were grateful to be sent back to Indonesia.

Refugee groups had claimed the 16 were seeking asylum on economic grounds as Australia's crackdown on illegal fishing had destroyed their livelihoods. They alleged the Howard government was seeking to create another pre-election scare campaign.

A spokesman for the Indonesians, Sukardi, said yesterday they “were really, really thankful to the Australian people. Without them we would not have survived.”

When the engine of their small fishing boat failed, the group, which included nine children, floundered for a week, driven south by strong winds.

“We were really scared for the children. We thought we would die,” Mr Sukardi said.

When they reached a large Australian tanker being used as an oil platform, the group “felt so relieved”, he said. They waited there for 12 hours for the Royal Australian Navy to rescue them.

Mr Sukardi said that earlier nine of his 10 boats had been seized and destroyed by Australia and he had used his last rickety boat to try to move to Saumlaki Island.

He asked: “How would we work and make a living in Australia? We don't even know how to speak English.”

The Age believes that the Indonesians never made a formal request for asylum because that would have required a claim that they were facing persecution.

But it is believed they did ask to stay in Australia, complaining of financial trouble on the tiny fishing island.

Asylum Seekers Resource Centre spokeswoman Pamela Curr said it was possible the Indonesian Government had put pressure on them to revise their story.

An Australian customs boat has rescued four people whose boat started taking on water near the Ashmore Islands.

The group was being taken to Christmas Island today for interviews and health checks.

The group will stay on Christmas Island until each member is assessed by the Immigration Department.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans said the Labor Government would retain Australia's strong border security arrangements.

“This Government will maintain an orderly migration system that encourages people to apply through proper channels for visas to Australia,” he said.

He said the Government had a firm commitment to close the offshore processing centres on Manus Island and Nauru and unauthorised boat arrivals would be processed on Christmas Island.