Dangerous journey keeps being repeated

By Greg Ansley

CANBERRA - Sabzali Salman's journey to tragedy began in Afghanistan.

Convinced that Australia would welcome him, Salman exchanged two passport photos and US$6000 ($7950) - roughly 15 times the impoverished nation's per capita income - for a flight out of India into the unknown.

A Pakistani middleman known as Ayoub put him and another Afghani on a plane for a six-hour flight to Indonesia, where it landed at dawn.

An Indonesian contact met them and spoke briefly with airport officials, before slipping his charges past immigration and putting them in a taxi bound for a "smelly and very dark" building where Salman remained for two weeks without stepping outside.

He and three others at last boarded a bus for a two-day journey, first to an open hut in a forest and then, late at night, to a beach where Salman and a group of about 15 others were ferried to a fishing boat anchored beyond the waves. Ominously, Salman noted there was only one lifejacket.

For five days they sailed across the Indian Ocean, only to be caught and boarded by the Australian Navy. The Afghanis pleaded not to be sent back to Indonesia: they were afraid their boat would sink.

Worse was to happen. The boat, named SIEV 36 by the Australians, exploded, killing five Afghani men and injuring many of the 42 others on board.

"The next thing I remember is that there was an explosion and I saw there was fire," Salman said in a statement to the committal hearing of two alleged Indonesian people-smugglers in Darwin. "I placed my arm in front of my face and jumped into the water and I swam towards the Australian vessel."

Salman's bitter journey and the April disaster of SIEV 36 have not deterred a new flood of boats trying to slip past the sophisticated Australian barricade across the Indian Ocean.

On Sunday Navy patrol craft intercepted two more boats - one near Ashmore Reef off the West Australian coast with 28 passengers and two crew, and the other, carrying 12 passengers, about 93 nautical miles northwest of Darwin.

Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor, under increasing attack for the resurgence in boatloads of asylum seekers, said after the boats were intercepted that people-smuggling was a worldwide problem. Canberra has been working with Indonesia and other countries to try to stem the flow.

This month Indonesia claimed to have prevented 1000 boat people leaving for Australia. But the flood of asylum seekers keeps building.

Former Prime Minister John Howard's conservative Government faced the same rising tide as more than 5500 asylum seekers in 43 boats either arrived or were intercepted at sea in the three years to 2001.

In a dramatic election-year clampdown, Howard launched his draconian "Pacific solution", imprisoning arrivals on Christmas Island and in new holding camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

On the mainland, asylum seekers were held first in a remote Outback camp at Woomera, in South Australia, and then the grim new Baxter high-security centre near Port Augusta.

The flood choked to a trickle: just eight boats with 134 people between 2001 and last year.

In the meantime Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had made good his promise to relax some of the harsher measures, sparking a new controversy as boats again began arriving.

More than 30 boats have arrived since Rudd's reforms were launched, with more than 1600 people on board.

At the beginning of the month the most recent immigration statistics said there were 968 people in detention, 665 of them at the main detention centre on Christmas Island.

Since then, and before the weekend's interceptions, the number on the island rose to about 840 asylum seekers and 12 crew, stretching facilities which, including temporary accommodation, can hold 1100.

With the Opposition baying for blood over what it claims is a new wave pulled towards Australia by Rudd's "open-door policies", a new federal task force is now reported to be preparing plans to use defence bases to house an expected overflow.

- NZ Herald

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