SYDNEY/QABEET, Lebanon: More than 30 people were still missing two days after a boat carrying asylum-seekers to Australia sank off the Indonesian coast, killing at least 29 people including seven children, Indonesian security officials said Sunday.
The latest disaster to strike refugees using Indonesia’s southern coast to try to make the perilous crossing suggests Australia’s tough new immigration rules may not be enough to deter asylum-seekers.
It will also cast a shadow over a visit to Jakarta Monday by Australia’s new conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose tough stance on immigration was at the heart of his campaign.
Indonesian police said there were 80 people on the boat, of whom 25 were rescued. That leaves up to 33 people still missing.
“We found the boat broken and destroyed,” Indonesia’s counterterrorism agency, which went to the scene of the sinking with police, said via a text message. “The illegal immigrants were from four countries [including] Syria, Jordan and Yemen.”
Indonesian police said Saturday that some of the passengers had also been from Lebanon.
Police said Saturday that the boat was headed for Australia’s Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island, a frequent destination for refugee boats from Indonesia and a favored route for people smugglers.
In Lebanon, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati instructed Lebanese authorities and the embassy in Jakarta to take all necessary measures to return survivors to the country and repatriate the bodies of the dead.
Caretaker Foreign Affairs Minister Adnan Mansour commissioned Lebanon’s ambassador in Malaysia to move temporarily to Jakarta to follow up on the return of the survivors to their homes, repatriate the bodies of the deceased and investigate the fate of the missing.
President Michel Sleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri and Mikati met over the weekend to discuss steps to be taken in the aftermath of the tragedy, agreeing on those outlined above.
They also asked the Lebanese security authorities to crack down on groups and individuals facilitating illegal immigration to Australia, claiming such operators lure people with promises and then abandon them to their fate.
In a statement by his office, Berri called on the Indonesian and Australian authorities to launch swift and fruitful investigations to determine the parties responsible for this incident and the whole trafficking process.
The head of the Future bloc, Fouad Siniora, telephoned Mikati to deliberate with him on the issue.
“This accident was a slap on the face of every official, which reminded us that the Lebanese can no longer have a future in their country where they lack security, order and hope,” Siniora said in a statement released after the phone call.
“We have to wake up and face the truth and face it with resilience so that we can be able to take the necessary decisions,” he added.
Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam placed blame for the tragedy on “all those who contributed in the desperation and disempowerment of the Lebanese people.”
On Sunday, lawmakers and public figures also gathered in the northern village to mourn those who died.
Local officials in Akkar confirmed 17 Lebanese were killed in the accident from their villages, while nine Lebanese from the Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood were also confirmed dead by their relatives in the north.
Village imam Sheikh Ali Khodr asked Lebanese authorities to repatriate the bodies of the victims and lashed out at the Australian government for failing to help the immigrants who include his cousin’s nine family members.
“Listen well, Australia: You are directly responsible for the drowning of the victims because they ... asked for help, food and fuel from the Australian authorities but to no avail,” Khodr said at the gathering.
Most of the Lebanese victims traveled to Indonesia using a valid passport with a tourist visa arranged by smugglers in Lebanon who then referred them, along with immigrants from Jordan and Iraq, to a boat that would sail to Australia.
Residents say desperate people sell their properties and pay smugglers between $5,000 and $10,000 per person for the journey in search of a better life.
About 400 boats carrying asylum seekers have arrived in Australia over the past 12 months and about 45,000 asylum seekers have arrived since late 2007, when the former Labor government relaxed border policies, eventually tightening them again in the face of a voter backlash.
The steady flow of refugee boats is a hot political issue in Australia, polarizing voters and stoking tension with neighbors like Indonesia and Sri Lanka over hard-line border security policies that have been criticized by the United Nations.
In July, Canberra announced tough new measures to stem a sharp increase in the number of refugee boats heading for Australia from Indonesia. The new government has also stopped providing regular information on asylum boats turned away and emergencies at sea.
The new plans have been condemned by human rights groups, with Amnesty International accusing Australia of shirking its moral obligations to help the world’s most vulnerable people.
Abbott has made Indonesia his first overseas destination since winning a general election on Sept. 7.
He will meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to seek support for his plan to have Australia’s navy turn migrants away and stop people traffickers operating from Indonesian ports.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and other lawmakers have criticized Abbott’s offer to pay Indonesian villagers for intelligence on people-smuggling gangs and ridiculed the proposal to buy fishing boats often used to smuggle migrants.
Australia’s Finance Minister Mathias Cormann defended his country’s response to the incident Sunday, saying the accident occurred in an area under Indonesian jurisdiction, AFP reported.
He also denied reports that authorities were notified in advance that the boat was in distress.
Cormann said the full details of the sinking and Australia’s response would be provided by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison Monday during the new government’s weekly briefing on its military-led operation against people-smugglers – a practice that was condemned by refugee rights protesters rallying in Sydney Sunday.
“The government cannot be allowed to use its media blackout to cover up the role of Australian authorities in this tragedy,” refugee rights activist Ian Rintoul said, adding that Canberra “well knows that Indonesia does not have the capability to carry out significant rescues at sea.”