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Missing boats or media sensation?

Image: thanks to cartoonist Jon Kudelka

Claims of a missing boat may be entirely false

When the West Australian first broke the story during the Christmas weekend of claims that a boat with asylum seekers was feared missing, the reporter based her story on claims of just one advocate.

The newspaper's claims were not cross-checked, while the report confidently stated the number of missing passengers at 97, reporting a 'rumour' that a vessel had arrived on December 2, 2010. No Customs of Immigration Department records of boat arrivals had been checked by the advocate or the reporter.

The arrival of every boat is a public affair, and all of them are duly reported by the Minister for Home Affairs. At Project SafeCom we collate these records (see below, and here) - and indeed, a vessel with 97 passengers arrived on December 2, 2010.

The report in the West Australian - reprinted below - was followed by another one in the Fairfax papers. A loud 'EXCLUSIVE' tag was added; so were photo's of more than a dozen passengers (see the PDF file below).

These reports followed a sensational claim made by The Australian on December 20 (see below), that up to five boats may be missing, but the article could barely substantiate these claims, instead filling space with quotes from advocates, mainly around a vessel with 105 passengers on board that indeed had gone missing - in November 2009, more than a year ago.

None of the reports noted that 77 passengers who had tried to depart from Surabaya had been apprehended on December 8 by Indonesian police, who had detained them (see the report below).

Unlike Australian reporters, we're not into sensational reporting, and we're not into fake investigations which leave gaping holes, and we don't need to fill the pages of Christmas weekend papers.

Neither should we assist to spread any forms of stifling fears about boat journeys, which serve political agenda's supporting the notion of "stopping the boats" or any other notions around "illegality" of maritime journeys of asylum seekers to our shores.

So, based on facts we already know, while thinking rationally and laterally, the following scenarios may represent what really happened to the 'missing passengers':

  • All 97 passengers arrived on December 2 and are being processed in one of the overcrowded detention centres on Christmas Island

  • All passengers are on Christmas Island, but due to overcrowding an limited telephone access they have been unable to confirm their arrival to family and friends

  • All passengers are on Christmas Island, but the Immigration Department and Serco (the detention services provider) do not allow them to phone to family and friends, because their policy around telephone access has changed

  • In November 2010, 14 boats arrived in Australia, and in December, 8 boats arrived in Australia; the original boat with around 97 passengers never left Indonesia, but all passengers embarked on different boats and reached Australia on a number of boats

  • The boat never sailed into Australian waters, but the journey ended and all passengers are held by Indonesian authorities (see report below) after being apprehended by authorities

We'll update this page once all the facts about the passengers reported in the Fairfax papers are known.

Quick links:

Click the links below to jump down to the articles and items on this page with the same title.


  • Lost for 42 days, another tragedy on the horizon - A Fairfax Newspapers report by reporter Natalie O'Brien, Sunday December 26, 2010, including photographs of 13 asylum seekers 'presumed' to be passengers on a missing vessel. (PDF file 1.32Mb)
  • Annual boat arrivals in Australian waters 2010 - This year saw an all-time record of boats arrive on our shores. Predictably, this went accompanied by howls of slander and disdain by the conservatives for the government's decency in allowing boats to land, and an equally hot neurotic shiver by the Rudd, then the Gillard government, while the electorate was divided between those who knew that boat journeys are a fact of life for Australia and those who screamed they were arriving in their thousands, illegally and clandestinely. (PDF file 96Kb)

1 June 2010: The 2009 missing Hazara boat - On October 2, 2009, a boat with 105 refugees sailed from an unknown Indonesian port to Australia. One of the passengers phoned his New York family to tell they were on their way now. Nothing more was heard of the person who called or from anyone else on board. This is the page for those passengers.

Asylum boat feared missing

Jane Hammond
The West Australian
December 25, 2010, 2:30am

Fears are held for the safety of 97 asylum seekers missing after their boat left Indonesia on November 14 bound for Australia.

Families of some of the missing have contacted refugee advocacy groups in Australia in a desperate bid to get news of their relatives.

The vessel is believed to be about 35 days overdue.

Jamal Daoud, spokesman for the Sydney-based Social Justice Network, said his group has passed on photographs of 13 of the missing to the Immigration Department but had heard nothing back.

It comes after up to 48 asylum seekers lost their lives last week when their boat smashed against rocks at Christmas Island.

Mr Daoud said the department was refusing to confirm or deny whether the asylum seekers were being held in immigration detention in Australia.

He said it was very unusual for asylum seekers not to contact their families on arrival in Australia.

His organisation had heard rumours that the boat had arrived in Australia on December 2 but none of the families had been contacted and no evidence of the arrival could be confirmed.

A department spokesman said asylum seekers were allowed to contact their families on arrival and most did.

"The department has an established process which provides for the identification of people in immigration detention from inquiries made by people contacting the department.

"Where information is provided to the department which enables the positive identification of a client in detention the department notifies that client of the inquiry.

"The client in detention is given the opportunity to call the person making the inquiry, or to give consent to the department to notify the inquirer of their status," he said.

Mr Daoud said the families of the missing mainly Iraqi and Iranian asylum seekers were trying to get news of their loved ones.

Families contacted the Social Justice Network from Iran, Iraq and Norway after hearing of the Christmas Island boat tragedy.

"So far we have been contacted by five families whose last contact with these people was the 13th of November," Mr Daoud said.

He said his group's intelligence indicated that the November 14 vessel had been organised by different people smugglers to those behind the ill-fated December 15 vessel.

The November 14 boat was organised by an Algerian and Afghan group whereas the boat that broke up on Christmas Island was the work of Iranian people smugglers.

Mr Daoud said the missing vessel had been similar in size and design to the boat that foundered on the cliffs of Christmas Island.

He said asylum seekers could easily find people in Jakarta willing to smuggle them to Australia.

He said if no word was forthcoming from the department about the missing asylum seekers, members of his group would fly to Jakarta to try to find out about their fate.

He said it was not known where the vessel intended to land in Australia but Christmas Island was the most likely destination.

Refugee groups claimed in January that 105 asylum seekers died when their boat sank between Australia and Indonesia but this was never officially verified.

Lost for 42 days, another tragedy on the horizon

Brisbane Times
Natalie O'Brien
December 26, 2010

THESE are the faces of some of the 97 other asylum seekers feared to have perished at sea while en route to Australia from Indonesia.

Frantic relatives of 14 of the missing people say they last had contact with them on November 13.

Relatives from Iraq and Iran who have contacted welfare groups in Australia said they last received a call from relatives saying they were in Jakarta and were due to leave by boat the next day with a group of about 97 people bound for Australia.

Although the journey from Indonesia by sea usually takes from two to four days, and a boat did arrive in Australia early this month, no further contact has been made.

The missing boat was due to arrive more than three weeks before the boat tragedy on Christmas Island on December 15 in which at least 48 asylum seekers died.

"We have been receiving many phone calls from family members that have lost contact with their beloved ones," said Jamal Daoud of the Social Justice Network.

"They told us that there were 97 persons on the boat. A few of the family members contacted Indonesian authorities to explore if their family members are in jail or detention, but the answer was always negative."

Mr Daoud said if they had already arrived in Australia it was unusual not to have heard from any of them. He said when asylum seekers were taken into detention they were given access to telephones to call their families to say they had arrived.

Refugee advocates who have been making inquiries in Indonesia say they have been told the missing boat had been organised by an Algerian people smuggler and was "lost".

Mr Daoud said there was a possibility the boat's engine had failed and they were shipwrecked on a remote island.

"We are thinking of sending someone to Indonesia to investigate," Mr Daoud said.

A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection said it was unaware of claims of a missing boat.

"If Border Protection Command, which manages day-to-day maritime surveillance and response operations, holds any safety concerns in relation to a vessel that has been detected, such information is passed to the Rescue Co-ordination Centre in the Australian Maritime Safety Authority to co-ordinate a response," a Customs spokesperson said. "No such detection was made and no rescue action was taken in the period which is the subject of the question."

Mr Daoud said the photos of the missing people were sent to the Department of Immigration and to others in detention centres more than a week ago in an effort to determine if anyone had seen them.

The Department of Immigration told The Sun-Herald it could not comment on the case but did say it had an established policy for identifying people in detention when inquiries were made.

A spokesman said if a positive identification of a person in detention was made, the detainee was told someone was looking for them and given an opportunity to respond. Alternatively they could give the department permission to contact the inquirer and tell them their status.

It is believed none of the missing people was on the boat tagged the SIEV 221, which crashed into the cliffs at Christmas Island almost two weeks ago.

Yesterday a boat carrying 57 asylum seekers was intercepted north-east of Ashmore Island. The passengers were expected to be transferred to Christmas Island.

Do you know more? Email n.obrien(at)

Fears for missing boat groundless

Virginia Ginnane
December 26, 2010 - 11:49am
AAP / The Age

Ninety-seven asylum seekers feared to have perished at sea are most likely on Christmas Island, a refugee advocate says.

A boat matching the description of the one believed to be missing en route from Jakarta arrived in Australia earlier this month, according to a federal government website.

There were concerns almost 100 people had died on their way to Australia after relatives failed to hear from them, Fairfax newspapers reported.

Fourteen relatives from Iraq and Iran contacted welfare groups in Australia, saying they last spoke to family members on November 13, when they were told the boat would leave Jakarta the next day.

Fairfax reported 97 asylum seekers were aboard the boat, which was expected to arrive in Australia more than three weeks before the boat tragedy on Christmas Island on December 15.

But Jack Smit, of the human rights group Project SafeCom, says he is "very confident" the boat arrived in Australian waters earlier this month.

A media release on the website of Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor states HMAS Wollongong boarded "a suspected irregular entry vessel" northeast of Christmas Island on December 2.

"Initial indications suggest there are 97 passengers and three crew on board," the website says.

"The group will be transferred to Christmas Island where they will undergo security, identity and health checks and their reasons for travel will be established."

Mr Smit said it was important that boats were only reported missing when they had failed to turn up.

"I am very confident this is the same boat," he told AAP on Sunday.

"It's really clear because as soon as a boat arrives the minister releases a press release.

"We can't confirm anything because if the boat is missing, it's missing (but) a lot of people will now be concerned with no reason."

A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection said it was unaware of claims of a missing boat.

Boatpeople bound for Australia detained

NewsCore / The Herald Sun
December 09, 2010 6:04am

Indonesia has detained 77 illegal migrants after their attempt to travel to Australia ended with their boat suffering engine failure, police said overnight.

Sumenep police operational head Edy Purwanto said the migrants, from Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan, departed from a harbor in Surabaya but got into mechanical difficulties while still in Indonesian waters.

They were rescued by police after drifting for eight hours and taken to an island off eastern Java.

"They are being investigated by the police in Kangean island. They consist of 52 men, 13 women and 12 children," Mr Purwanto said.

He said the boat's Indonesian captain, from East Nusa Tenggara province, was also being interviewed.

Thousands of asylum seekers head through Southeast Asian countries on their way to Australia every year and many link up with people smugglers in Indonesia for the dangerous voyage.

Canberra hopes to set up a regional processing center for refugees in East Timor in an attempt to reduce the flow of asylum seekers heading to Australia.

Refugee vessels feared lost at sea

Mark Dodd
The Australian
December 20, 2010 12:00am

Fears are held for at least five asylum-seeker boats that have set sail from Indonesia for Christmas Island since 2008 but are missing.

A sixth boat ferrying asylum-seekers from Malaysia to Indonesia in 2008 was believed to have sunk with the loss of 86 lives, said Afghan Hazara community spokesman Hassan Ghulam.

Of the six boats whose fate was unknown, most interest was centred on a vessel reportedly carrying 105 passengers that departed from near Jakarta in early October last year, Mr Ghulam told The Australian.

The traditional wooden boat went missing in heavy seas within days of leaving port.

Mr Ghulam said relatives reported receiving panicked telephone calls from passengers.

"They were in telephone communication with a smuggler named Hijaz.

"On the second day, they (passengers) called and said the sea is very rough -- what should we do?" he said.

The boat's Indonesian captain is alleged to have warned that seas were too rough to turn the boat around so Hijaz is said to have reassured passengers that it was all right to proceed with the voyage.

The boat never made it to Christmas Island and Mr Ghulam said he had received several inquiries from relatives about its fate.

Pamela Curr, from the Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said: "I've had a number of emails from Malaysia and Holland, from people looking for relatives."

Mr Ghulam said that in 2008 another boat carrying Afghan asylum-seekers from Malaysia to Indonesia sank and at least 86 people perished.

The fate of three small boats, which set off for Christmas Island from Indonesia carrying between six to 10 passengers, was also unknown, he said.

As tensions continued to run high among detainees at Christmas Island yesterday over the wreck of the boat carrying up to 100 asylum-seekers on Wednesday, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen was asked to respond to claims by the UN refugee agency's regional representative, Richard Towle, that Australia's immigration detention system was clogged with rejected asylum-seekers.

"I don't think, in fairness, that is exactly what he said," Mr Bowen said, defending the government's "very robust returns policy".

"We have seen rejection rates increase over recent months; that takes some time to flow through the system in terms of returns."

Project SafeCom