TRIPOLI, Lebanon: At least 17 Lebanese, including a number of children, drowned Friday on their way to Australia in a boat accident off the coast of Indonesia.
“I only have confirmation that 17 people have died,” Ali Hussein, mukhtar of the northern village of Qabeet, where most of the victims were from, told The Daily Star.
The boat carrying at least 80 people sank 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.
The total number of Lebanese on the boat remained unclear, according to a Lebanese Embassy official in Indonesia.
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 nearby villages 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, according to AFP.
The state-run 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, instructed officials to follow up on the incident, a statement from his office said.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati urged the officials at the embassy in Jakarta to coordinate with Indonesian authorities and uncover the circumstances surrounding it as well as determining the fate of the Lebanese travelers.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri made a series of contacts to follow up on this issue, and asked his Future Movement to help the survivors and repatriate the bodies of the victims.
The mukhtar added that many from the village sell all of their belongings and property to make the trip to Indonesia and travel by sea to Australia in search of 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 the risks of traveling by boat to Australia.
“They come to me to prepare their passport documents so they can travel to Indonesia ... I try to advise them [against it] but they want a better life for their families,” he said.
The village 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 didn’t know when we would see them again,” Khodr 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 visas to Indonesia and boat trips to the Australian coast.
Thousands 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.” – Additional reporting by Misbah Ali