Mark Dodd, December 20, 2010

Photo: ABC

FEARS are held for at least five asylum-seeker boats that have set sail from Indonesia for Christmas Island since 2008 but are missing.

A sixth boat ferrying asylum-seekers from Malaysia to Indonesia in 2008 was believed to have sunk with the loss of 86 lives, said Afghan Hazara community spokesman Hassan Ghulam.

Of the six boats whose fate was unknown, most interest was centred on a vessel reportedly carrying 105 passengers that departed from near Jakarta in early October last year, Mr Ghulam told The Australian.

The traditional wooden boat went missing in heavy seas within days of leaving port.

Mr Ghulam said relatives reported receiving panicked telephone calls from passengers.

“They were in telephone communication with a smuggler named Hijaz.

“On the second day, they (passengers) called and said the sea is very rough — what should we do?” he said.

The boat’s Indonesian captain is alleged to have warned that seas were too rough to turn the boat around so Hijaz is said to have reassured passengers that it was all right to proceed with the voyage.

The boat never made it to Christmas Island and Mr Ghulam said he had received several inquiries from relatives about its fate.

Pamela Curr, from the Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said: “I’ve had a number of emails from Malaysia and Holland, from people looking for relatives.”

Mr Ghulam said that in 2008 another boat carrying Afghan asylum-seekers from Malaysia to Indonesia sank and at least 86 people perished.

The fate of three small boats, which set off for Christmas Island from Indonesia carrying between six to 10 passengers, was also unknown, he said.

As tensions continued to run high among detainees at Christmas Island yesterday over the wreck of the boat carrying up to 100 asylum-seekers on Wednesday, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen was asked to respond to claims by the UN refugee agency’s regional representative, Richard Towle, that Australia’s immigration detention system was clogged with rejected asylum-seekers.

“I don’t think, in fairness, that is exactly what he said,” Mr Bowen said, defending the government’s “very robust returns policy”.

“We have seen rejection rates increase over recent months; that takes some time to flow through the system in terms of returns.”

Source: The Australian

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