The wooden fishing boat carrying Afghan refugee Bahrem Khan and about 420 other Muslim asylum seekers began taking on water just a day after leaving a port on Indonesia’s Sumatra island last week. Within 10 minutes, the overloaded vessel capsized, trapping as many as 200 people inside the hull.
Khan, 45, was lucky enough to make it into the open water. “We didn’t have anything” to hold onto, he said today, but he and three other men found a small wooden plank bobbing in the waves and “spent the whole night trying to balance” themselves on it. Khan was rescued; four of his brothers, who were on the boat with him, are presumed drowned.
U.N. officials said 44 survivors were pulled from the water. Many had been clinging to pieces of wood for 20 hours. According to accounts from the scene, one survivor was an 8-year-old boy who lost 21 relatives.
The sinking highlights the perilous journey that thousands of people from the Middle East and Central Asia take every year in hopes of reaching Australia, a nation with strict immigration laws that nevertheless is regarded as an economic promised land.
After making their way to Malaysia, which does not require Muslims to obtain entry visas, they cross to neighboring Indonesia, where smugglers place them on leaky, unseaworthy vessels that often lack emergency radios and enough life jackets.
Khan left his home in Afghanistan two months ago after he was fired from his government job by officials of the ruling Taliban militia on grounds that he was not sufficiently loyal. Desperate to feed his wife and six children, he and four of his brothers set out from Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border, on a stealthy and meandering journey, with dreams of landing a job in Australia.
They traveled by land to Pakistan. Then they flew to Thailand. Then they drove to Malaysia and hopped a ferry to Indonesia.
Some survivors of Friday’s catastrophe said they paid $4,000 for the journey. It was supposed to take them to Australian territorial waters, which begin 220 miles south of Indonesia’s main island, Java.
“When we first saw the boat, we knew that we’d been tricked,” said another survivor, Musa Qiyes, 41, a native of Iraq. “It was a boat with the capacity for 100 people, but there were around 400 of us.”
Khan worried about the boat’s condition, but boarded anyway. “I have six kids to feed,” he said today. “I really didn’t have any other choice than to take the risk.”
The survivors said the boat, which set out from Sumatra’s Lampung province, began leaking a day into the journey. The vessel’s water pump was broken, they said.
“An engineer tried to repair the water pump but failed,” Qiyes said. “We then tried to get the water out of the boat with dishes, but water kept coming in and weighing the boat down.” Finally, she said, “the boat cracked.” After that, it quickly sank.
In April 2000, up to 350 asylum seekers traveling from Indonesia were feared drowned off northern Australia, although their deaths were never confirmed. And last December, boats carrying as many as 163 people sank in bad weather en route to Australia’s Ashmore Island, according to unconfirmed reports.
Although Indonesia has a coast guard, it has few boats and no helicopters. The main hope for surviving a sinking is rescue by passing fishing boats.
The Indonesian government has refused to sign a U.N. agreement to accept refugees, forcing those who land in the archipelago to lodge asylum applications with the U.N. refugee agency or try their luck traveling to Australia. The U.N. asylum applications can take months to process, leading some to give up and get on boats.
“I had been on the U.N. refugee list for six months, but there was no sign whatsoever from them,” said Qiyes. She and the other survivors were brought to a refugee camp run by the International Organization for Migration in Bogor, 36 miles south of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.
U.N. officials have blamed the processing delays on a host of factors, including a shortage of staff members to handle the applications and the reluctance of other nations to accept the refugees. Some Western governments say many of the refugees do not qualify for asylum because they are not fleeing political persecution.
Although several large people-smuggling syndicates are believed to operate in Indonesia, the authorities have failed to crack down on them aggressively, despite pressure from Australia and other neighboring countries.
The Australian government recently tried to crack down by refusing to allow ships carrying refugees to land on its territory, instead transferring them to neighboring Pacific island states for processing. In August, Australia generated international criticism when it refused to take in more than 400 mainly Afghan migrants rescued by a Norwegian freighter near Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.
Refugees who land in Australia are held in camps while their asylum petitions are processed.
An Afghan survivor of the capsized fishing boat, center, is helped into a refugee camp in Bogor, Indonesia. U.N. officials said only 44 of the approximately 420 passengers on the overcrowded vessel appear to have survived.Passengers from the capsized vessel rest at an Indonesian refugee camp. The 44 survivors spent hours in the water before being rescued by fishermen.