TRIPOLI, Lebanon: At least seventeen Lebanese including a number of children drowned on their way to Australia in a boat accident off the coast of Indonesia, a local official said Friday.
“I only have confirmation that 17 people have died on the boat,” Ali Hussein, mukhtar of the northern village of Qabeet, where most of the victims are from, told The Daily Star.
Lebanese officials in Jakarta said the boat carrying at least 80 people sunk earlier Friday, 12 hours by sea off the Indonesian coast on its way to Australia. The boat was said to be carrying migrants from different nationalities.
"We don't have any information as to how many Lebanese are on the ferry," the Lebanese embassy official said.
The Mayor of Qabeet Ahmad Darwish told The Daily Star there were three survivors who were able to swim to the coast and contacted their families in Lebanon.
Darwish said that some of the immigrants were also from the northern towns of Meshmesh and Fnaydeq.
An Indonesian official said 20 bodies were found floating in the water, most of them children, and that 25 adults had so far been rescued from the boat alive, according to AFP.
The National News Agency published the names of some of the men, women and children who died on the ferry.
Among the victims were nine members from the family of a local man who the mukhtar identified as Hussein Ahmad Khodr and the five-member family of Asaad Ali Asaad.
President Michel Sleiman, who had just returned from New York after attending the United Nations General Assembly meeting, instructed officials to follow up on the incident and asked them to take the necessary measures, a statement from his office said.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati urged officials at the Lebanese Embassy in Jakarta to coordinate with Indonesian authorities and uncover the circumstances surrounding it as well as determining the fate of the Lebanese travelers.
In response to the tragedy that engulfed the village, a delegation of Future MPs who hail from Akkar held a news conference Friday afternoon, saying former Prime Minister Saad Hariri will do his utmost to resolve the case.
"Hariri made the necessary contacts to follow up on the case in order to transport the victims' bodies and return survivors to their homes," Future MP Khaled Zahraman said.
"[Hariri] expressed his readiness to do all he can to resolve this tragic case," he added.
In a statement, Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri expressed his condolences to the families of the victims and to Akkar resident.
Hariri asked the Future Movement to help the survivors and repatriate the bodies of the Lebanese victims and bury them in coordination with their families and Akkar figures.
Caretaker Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi asked the state prosecutor's office to launch an investigation into the incident and the allegations of financial exploitation.
Residents of Qabeet are mourning the death of their relatives and most of them will not be able to provide their loved ones with proper burial, the local mukhtar said.
Hussein added that many from the Akkar village sell all of their belongings and property to make the trip to Indonesia and travel by sea to Australia “seeking a better life.”
“The situation is very difficult to deal with because bringing the bodies to the village will be very costly,” he added.
Hussein also said that he tried to convince many of the residents to look for an alternative given that traveling on a boat to Australia was very risky.
“They come to me to prepare their passport documents so they could travel to Indonesia ... I try to advise them but they want a better life for their families,” he said.
The village’s Imam Sheikh Ali Khodr, the cousin of the man whose family died in the incident, said his relative contacted him earlier Friday and told him about the accident.
“He told me that his eight children and wife drowned but authorities only retrieved the bodies of the mother and two of his daughters,” Khodr told The Daily Star.
“When he left with his family, we all started crying because we did not know when we would see them again,” he said.
The sheikh added that his cousin was among many residents of the village and surrounding areas who were “fooled” by what he described as mafias who prepare the visas to Indonesia and the boat trips to the Australian coast.
Thousands of people make the perilous journey to Australia annually, risking death and failure to reach the country’s coast. Immigrants who arrive by boat are usually placed in camps until their protection claims are processed.
Australia has recently changed its policy toward asylum seekers who arrive by boat, they are now being treated similar to those who arrive by plane and run the risk of being turned away.
“Many have taken advantage of that because there are mafias comprising of Lebanese, Indonesians and Australians who prepare the trips for these people for an estimated $3,000 to $5,000 for each person,” Khodr said.
The sheikh held the government responsible for the blood of the Lebanese, saying: “If it was not for poverty and the miserable life here in Akkar, these people would have never thought of risking their lives to leave.” -With additional reporting by Misbah Ali