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Survivors of Refugee Boat Sinking Treated in Indonesia - 2001-10-23

Survivors of a boat that sank in Indonesian waters are being treated in hospitals after spending nearly 24 hours drifting at sea. At least 350 asylum seekers, mostly from Iraq, died when the boat capsized while attempting an illegal voyage to Australia.

Survivors say the Indonesian ship capsized and sank in a matter of minutes Friday. They managed to cling to debris for 22 hours before fishermen rescued them. Many of those who died were trapped below the ship's decks.

Amal Hassan, a 43-year-old Iraqi, says she had misgivings when she first saw the ship they were to take to Australia, but she boarded anyway. Now, nine members of her family are missing. "But when we arrived [at] this ship, I see the ship is from wood, bad wood. I am afraid," she said. "I told everyone, this ship is not good. They say, 'No, no, everyone will go to Australia by this ship. Do not say anything. Silent, silent!'"

Officials say thousands of people use Indonesia as a transit point to try to enter Australia illegally every year. Many of them pay thousands of dollars to middlemen who help them make the journey from the Middle East.

Officials say they hope this tragic incident will highlight the humanitarian issues involved in people-smuggling.

Richard Danziger, from the International Organization of Migration, says "if we take a step back, we see this is one very small piece of a huge refugee problem, especially from this part of the world, from Afghanistan and so forth."

The problem of asylum seekers has strained ties between Indonesia and Australia. The Australian government has recently refused other boatloads of illegal migrants to reach its shores. But Indonesia does not want to take financial responsibility for asylum seekers found passing through its territory.