An Afghan community group leader says he believes at least eight asylum seeker boats have sunk en route to Australia since 2008.
Hassan Ghulam, the President of the Hazara Ethnic Society in Australia, says hundreds of people have disappeared while making the dangerous sea voyage.
Ghulam says he has researched the fate of one boat in particular, which set out from a port near Jakarta n October 2009 aiming for Christmas Island
He says the boat did not arrive and there is no sign of the 103 people believed to have been on board.
“Some relatives of the people who were on that boat have contacted me and they have asked me to find out where their family members are”, he told SBS.
“I have asked individuals who are in detention centres, like on Christmas Island, as well as in the other detention centres and most of them have said that boat has perished.
Ghulam says he just wants to find out what happened to the boat so he can tell the families of those missing.
He says he contacted the Customs and Border Protection Service, but it denied any knowledge of such a boat.
The service has displayed a lack of interest in reports of missing boats, says Ghulam.
But he says he doubts such boats could be missed by Australian surveillance.
The Refugee Action Coalition’s Ian Rintoul says he’s also convinced that boats have disappeared because relatives of those on board had been expecting them.
“There are a number of fairly well-known ones. There are a couple that seemed like Tamil boats probably, in the Indian Ocean, but it’s well-documented that people have drowned on the way here… that have gone into distress in Indonesian waters and some others have almost certainly disappeared. There’s one particular one that’s from 2008, probably October 2008, where we think probably 105 people may have been on that boat and have disappeared.
Both Rintoul and Ghulam say an independent inquiry should be held into the level of knowledge that Australian authorities have about asylum seeker boats that sink before making it to Australia
Rintoul says authorities should release whatever information they have.
“I think it would be very useful to have that kind of information. Clearly there are high level exchanges between Australia and Indonesia about boats that are leaving and there’s a certain amount of knowledge that would be held by respective border protection authorities. And I think it would be very useful to know at what level those boats are under surveillance”, he says.
“Of course the most important thing is how effectively they’re monitored in order to provide assistance.”
The government’s Customs and Border Protection Service says it is not aware of any vessels that have sunk at sea that have not already been “publicly disclosed”.
But Customs did not elaborate on which boats it believed to have been “publicly disclosed”.
Customs also refused to outline any surveillance measures in place to track asylum seeker boats, saying it is inappropriate to comment on “intelligence matters”.
The boat crash at Christmas Island has reignited the political debate over asylum seeker policy, with calls for both a toughening and a softening of the government’s stance.
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has called for a doubling of Australia’s refugee intake, as well as a new approach to prevent suffering to asylum seekers.
The federal opposition, meanwhile, has called on the government to return to the policies of former Prime Minister John Howard
Taking the risk
But Hassan Ghulam says the dangerous journeys faced by potential asylum seekers do not deter them.
“Most of these asylum seekers have been on death row and now they are making their last risks, you know, and after that last risk they have the idea that they will be in a nice, peaceful place, you know, with a good record of human rights observation. which is Australia – so they are taking that final risk but unfortunately they are not making it.”
One Iraqi refugee in Australia, Chehab Saymari, says he lost his brother-in-law, three of his wife’s sisters, and two of their children during last week’s boat accident at Christmas Island.
He says he was told of their deaths by one of the people who was rescued by Australian authorities.
But Saymari says asylum seekers will continue to come.
“The government should process asylum seekers offshore in Indonesia. And if they want to play the death game with people, it is their business. But they should expect people to protest, to talk and to write about it.”