As the grim details emerge concerning a boat tragedy that appears to have resulted in the deaths of at least 200 people off the Indonesian coast over the weekend, few can be in any doubt that a massive international effort is required to hunt down and prosecute the human smugglers responsible.
In a shocking act of cowardice, asylum seekers watched on helplessly as the captain and five of his crew made off with the few life jackets available. The rest had to make do in a five to six meter swell, with only a handful making it ashore.
The 20-meter fishing vessel had been at sea for six hours when it began to capsize about 30 kilometers off the East Java coastline, listing under the weight of too many people who were sleeping on one side of the boat.
Those passengers – from Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan – were reportedly initially lied to on arrival in Malaysia, where they were promised that life vests and all correct safety measures would be taken on board. They failed to realize the vessel was only made to carry 100 people.
They waited in Malaysia for about a month until that boat became available. Reports vary, but they suggest between 215 and 380 people were on board when it sank, including 40 children.
Authorities say they are close to finding the human smugglers responsible for the disaster after intensive questioning of the survivors who have been moved to Blitar from the fishing port of Prigi, where they were initially taken on Saturday. Many had washed up at Nusa Barong.
Two crew members have also been apprehended and are being interviewed by Indonesia’s Anti-People Smuggling Task Force, which is assisted by Australian Federal Police amid unsubstantiated reports linking the failed trip to Sayeed Abbas.
Abbas, considered the king pin of human smuggling, is wanted in Australia and has apparently been working alongside Sajjad Hussain Noor and Amanullah Rezaie.He was also linked to a boat carrying 66 people that was intercepted off Christmas Island earlier this year.
Since then, the number of boats arriving in Australia has risen sharply. In November alone, nine vessels ferrying 900 people arrived on Australian shores where attitudes toward boat people are mixed at best.
The issue is often clouded by problems in distinguishing between genuine refugees, economic migrants and journeymen with a taste for adventure. Australia takes about 10,000 refugees a year through well established immigration channel. Those arriving by boat are often viewed as queue jumpers.
The tragic interviews that followed the sinking showed the genuine anguish and grief being experienced by those who lost love ones onboard the doomed boat. Many, in a high state of anxiety, wanted Australia to step in simply because that was their intended destination, despite the illegally overloaded vessel being stranded in Indonesian waters.