Indonesian authorities said yesterday they had found a boat that was reported missing en route to Australia and that the dozens of asylum seekers it was carrying were believed to have fled.
Authorities had been searching for the boat since the mostly Afghan asylum seekers on board made a distress call to Australia on Wednesday, saying they were in rough seas and their boat was sinking.
Refugee advocates who said 60 asylum seekers were on board alerted Australian authorities, who passed on the information to Indonesian officials.
Indonesian authorities said they had located the missing vessel late on Friday on Lombok Island, which lies east of the popular resort island of Bali, although residents said they spotted the asylum seekers on Wednesday.
“People in Lombok informed us that they saw the boat arrive on the shore on Wednesday, and that people came ashore and ran off,” said Nanang Sigit, a search-and-rescue official in West Nusa Tenggara Province.
“We were not alerted immediately, so we only found the boat Friday night. We’re now working with police and are conducting a search on the island,” he said.
Ian Rintoul of Brisbane-based Refugee Action Network said he believed the vessel was still out at sea as late as Friday, when he last spoke to the asylum seekers via cellphone.
“If they found a boat on the island on Wednesday, then it’s not the right boat,” he said.
“When I spoke to them last, I could hear the wind and water in the background. They said the boat had taken a lot of water,” he added.
Indonesian officials said they were calling off the search for the vessel, apparently satisfied they had found the right boat.
“Residents told us they saw more than 50 people of Afghan appearance get off the boat and run, so we decided to stop searching the sea,” Sigit said.
A news correspondent saw the boat on Bumbangku beach in southern Lombok, saying the 10m long wooden vessel had a fine crack about 7m long along its floor and that water had seeped through.
The boat was full of empty instant noodle packets and water bottles.
Each year thousands of refugees — many in recent months from Afghanistan — try to make the perilous journey through Indonesian waters in hopes of seeking asylum in Australia.
“Asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat face very real risks and we need to work together now to prevent another tragedy from occurring,” Australian Minister of Immigration Chris Bowen said.
Many of the overloaded and rickety boats used by people smugglers for the journey do not make it.
Last week, a Singapore-registered tanker rescued about 120 Australia-bound asylum seekers — all men and mostly Afghans and some Iranians — from their sinking wooden boat.
They finally disembarked in Indonesia, after refusing to get off the docked tanker for two days, insisting they be allowed to continue their journey to Australia.