BEIRUT: The head of the Higher Relief Committee, Ibrahim Bashir, vowed the delegation he led to Indonesia Tuesday night would return with the survivors of the Indonesian boat tragedy early next week, as news emerged that Australia had made special efforts to warn officials in northern Lebanon.
“We have secured tickets to the 18 Lebanese so that they return with us aboard the same plane early next week,” Bashir said at Rafik Hariri International Airport prior to his departure.
He also said that the delegation would make efforts to bring back home with it six Lebanese arrested in Indonesia for overstaying their visa.
Bashir said that the bodies would be repatriated as soon as possible once DNA tests are over. He did not mention the Lebanese who were reportedly waiting in Indonesia to attempt a similar trip.
A boat reportedly carrying 80 immigrants, including approximately 68 Lebanese seeking to illegally cross to Australia sank off the coast of Indonesia Friday. Eighteen of the survivors were Lebanese, but only 36 bodies have been recovered since the accident. It is unclear how many of the deceased are Lebanese, but dozens of missing are feared dead.
After vowing Wednesday afternoon to leave “within 24 hours,” the delegation was delayed by eight hours due to logistical problems, a source at the airport said.
Meanwhile, reports emerged that Australia had warned officials in northern Lebanon of its strict immigration policy and the threat of people smugglers just weeks before the accident.
The Australian Embassy had sent media releases to mayors and MPs in north Lebanon highlighting the country’s stringent policy on illegal migration just weeks before a boat carrying Lebanese seeking to illegally enter Australia had foundered off the Indonesian coast.
Speaking to The Daily Star, a spokesperson for the Australian Embassy said that in an attempt to discourage Lebanese citizens from attempting the perilous maritime journeys in the hands of people smugglers to Australia, the embassy circulated a number of media releases at the beginning of September.
As well as being distributed to media outlets, the releases were targeted at public representatives in Akkar and Tripoli in north Lebanon, areas the spokesperson said the embassy was “aware people are traveling to Indonesia and then to Australia from.” The releases were also published on the embassy’s website.
Akkar MP Kazem Kheir, from the Future Movement, said that the Australian Embassy had alerted Lebanese officials of fraud against Lebanese citizens three weeks before the Indonesia boat tragedy.
He said that on Sept. 5, the Australian Embassy had sent a memo to mayors in Akkar, explaining how Lebanese were being illegally transferred to Australia and asking them to warn people that the entire process was illegal.
“ The Australian Embassy in Lebanon sent a memo to most municipalities, particularly the union of municipalities in the north,” Kheir told The Daily Star.“But this memo came too late because those who drowned have actually left Lebanon around two months ago.”
Kheir said that the embassy had informed Lebanese security agencies about the issue as well.
The first of the releases, issued on July 19, outlined changes in Australian immigration policy, stating clearly that “as of today asylum-seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.”
It explained that under a new agreement – the Regional Resettlement Arrangement – signed with Papua New Guinea, unauthorized arrivals in Australia would be sent to Papua New Guinea where their qualification for refugee status would be appraised.
It also emphasized that resettlement in Australia would only be achievable through legal international channels and not “through criminal operators who have pushed people onto unseaworthy vessels with tragic consequences.”
“No doubt there will be some people smugglers who now encourage asylum-seekers to test our resolve,” the release cautioned.
The second release, issued on Aug. 22, confirmed that since the introduction of the new immigration policy Lebanese citizens had sought to enter Australia illegally.
“The Department of Immigration and Citizenship today [Aug. 22] confirmed the transfer to Papua New Guinea of a ninth group of 40 asylum-seekers subject to the new Regional Settlement Arrangement,” it said. This group included “10 Iranians, three Iraqis, 26 Lebanese and one Syrian.”
In a third release, issued two days after the second, Australia confirmed the transfer of further Lebanese citizens under the RSA. “The Department of Immigration and Citizenship today confirmed the second transfer of family groups under the Regional Settlement Arrangement to the regional processing center in Nauru,” it said.
The transfer from Christmas Island of 12 adults and 11 children included Lebanese, Iranian and Afghan nationalities, it added.
The Embassy spokesperson told The Daily Star that a decision had been made to send these media releases to Lebanese officials and media outlets in early September when the embassy “became aware that there were some Lebanese nationals among the asylum-seekers transferred to Papua New Guinea under the new arrangement.”The spokesperson added that at that point the embassy thought it had been important to alert officials and raise awareness of the issue.
But Akkar MP Khodr Habib told The Daily Star he only heard of the Australian warnings when they came to light in the media and slammed the state for late action.
“There are survivors that should be relieved and bodies that should be repatriated. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri was the only one who stepped in in the first 48 hours by dispatching an envoy,” Habib told a local radio station.
“The government that is headed by a person who hails from Tripoli and has five ministers from Tripoli took action only in the sixth day,” he added, in reference to caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati.– Additional reporting by Antoine Amrieh