163 Feared Dead in Australian Boat Tragedy

Up to 163 boatpeople en route to Australia from Indonesia are believed to have drowned when their two vessels sank in stormy seas, Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said today.

He said Australia was investigating reports that a Japanese tanker had picked up four survivors from one boat.

The vessel was believed to be carrying 87 people when it went missing between Indonesia’s southern islands and Ashmore Islands, an outcrop of reefs about 370 miles off Australia’s remote northwest.

Bad Weather Blamed

“The weather conditions to the north of Australia have been atrocious, and there are reports that another boat, carrying 80 passengers, has also disappeared en route,” Ruddock said in a statement.

Tropical Cyclone Sam built in intensity off Australia’s northwest last week before it crossed land late on Friday.

While the nationalities of the boatpeople were not known, Ruddock said most illegal immigrants who head to Australia via Indonesia were of Middle Eastern origin.

“Recently we’ve seen people from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and a small number of Palestinians,” he said.

Many pay people smugglers before making the journey in often unstable craft.

Trying to Reach Australia

The boats were believed to have left Indonesia last week and were expected to have arrived at Ashmore at the weekend. The 149-mile sea crossing to Australia from Timor island typically takes two to three days.

Ruddock said he had asked the Immigration Department’s Coast Watch service, the Customs service, the navy and the Australian Federal Police to investigate and determine whether there were any further survivors.

“We are doing everything in our powers to verify these reports,” Ruddock said, adding that a search and rescue operation would be nearly impossible given the scant information.

“We’re dealing here with a group of people whose intention was to arrive without notice, clandestinely, on vessels that really don’t have the sort of navigational devices and identification equipment that would enable a search and rescue operation to be able to be mounted,” he said.

An Australian Defense Force spokesman said he was unaware of the reports but said the defense force would be unable to mount a search outside Australian territorial waters.

Dangerous Journey

Ruddock said he knew more boatpeople were in Indonesia waiting to attempt the crossing despite the government’s campaign to deter people from making the dangerous journey.

“If people are intent on getting into vulnerable vessels in dangerous seas, then there are risks involved,” he told reporters.

More than 250 suspected illegal immigrants were feared drowned in April after three boats went missing between Indonesia and Australia in stormy weather.

The government estimates one third of boats attempting to bring people illegally to Australia do not arrive.

Ruddock said about 1,000 illegal immigrants had arrived by boat since July 1 — about half the rate of the previous fiscal year. More than 4,000 boat people arrived illegally in the year to June 30, 2000.