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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

More may have survived asylum tragedy

Tom Allard and Kirsty Needham
December 20, 2011 - 5:04PM
The first rescued asylum seekers were taken to East Java, Indonesia. Now officials are investigating whether more people survived. Photo: AP
Hopes have been raised that another, large group of asylum seekers may have survived the tragic sinking of a people smuggling vessel three days ago and are sheltering on an island off the coast.

Police are taking seriously the information that an asylum seeker called his family in Pakistan late yesterday, saying he was with the group of people, some of whom were injured.

Armaghan Haider, an Afghan survivor of the disaster, said the news provoked a wave of optimism among survivors staying at the Grand Mansion hotel in Blitar, especially as it came just after 13 people were discovered yesterday on another island, Nusa Barung, some 200 kilometres from where the vessel laden with about 250 asylum seekers capsized on Saturday.

At least 47 people on the boat are now confirmed to have survived.

Mr Haider said the man who contacted his family was named Farhan, and urged them to get in contact with Indonesian authorities.

"He was not among the 13 people," said Mr Haider. "He called his family and told [them] that 'I'm safe. Among me is a lot of people who are safe. We are trapped on some island. I don't know where it is. My neck, my hand, my nose, everything is broken but a lot of people are still alive in this island'."

The information could not be independently verified. The Indonesian mobile phone number that Farhan' gave his family was out of range or switched off when called by Fairfax.

However, a police source said the information is being followed up with the utmost urgency. A Jakarta-based refugee advocate who knows many of those on the boat also confirmed that the information was relayed to him last night.

Two Indonesian men, believed to be crew of the vessel, were also found on a beach in East Java yesterday. They are in a hospital in Malang and being interviewed by police. It is understood they claim they are just fishermen who were tossed from a small boat.

However, police are treating their denials with scepticism.

In Australia, the asylum seeker issue took another political turn, with Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison today rejecting accusations by the federal government that the Coalition is unwilling to sit down and negotiate on offshore processing.

"At no stage has the Coalition rejected any discussions, but there must be something to talk about," Mr Morrison told reporters in Sydney.

His press conference was hurriedly convened after immigration minister Chris Bowen earlier launched a broadside attack on the Coalition's refusal to meet to negotiate on border protection policy.

Releasing a trail of letters between the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, written in the week leading up to the most recent boat disaster, Mr Bowen said the federal government had warned that the worsening weather was increasing the risk to life at sea - and an offshore processing policy was needed to prevent another tragedy at sea and deter boat arrivals.

Mr Bowen said: "I don't believe the situation is acceptable to the Australian people. In fact I believe the Australian people have had a gutful of the politicking."

Ms Gillard had offered to recall parliament to pass legislation that had been stymied by the Opposition's refusal to support the Malaysia refugee swap, but a meeting had been repeatedly rebuffed by Mr Abbott in his replies, Mr Bowen said.

However, Mr Morrison said Mr Bowen had misconstrued the letters and it was the federal government that had been saying "no" on the issue by refusing to consider adopting elements of the Coalition's decade-old border protection policy.

"This government said no to temporary protection visas ... said no to turning boats back ... and also said no to amendments that would allow offshore processing," Mr Morrison said.

He repeated his comments of yesterday, that Mr Abbott wanted to see a specific proposal from the government in writing.

"The Coalition will accept any proposal from the government in strict confidence," he said.

Mr Bowen said the letters received from Mr Abbott, the most recent one sent last night, had stated that fresh meetings on the issue were "pointless".

"I don't believe there is anything pointless about meeting to try to save lives," Mr Bowen said.

The Coalition is refusing to allow legislation that would enable the federal government to send asylum seekers to Malaysia in a refugee "swap", and instead supports establishing an offshore processing centre on Nauru - which was the Howard government's policy.

Mr Bowen said an offshore processing centre, which the government wants located on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, wouldn't work to deter boats unless it was accompanied by the Malaysia arrangement.

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