A group of surfing tourists have told of their face-to-face encounter with a boat load of stricken asylum seekers on their way to Christmas Island yesterday.
The surfers were on a boat sailing towards Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands in the search of waves when they spotted the ragged, broken-down vessel carrying 48 Sri Lankans including women, children and a disabled person.
The asylum seekers claimed to have traveled from India and were on their way to Christmas Island to seek asylum in Australia but they had run out of fuel.
“We came around the corner and thought it was a feral surf boat, then when we went past it, that’s when we saw all the people,” the tourists’ chef Tim Everingham told Chris Binns, editor of website Surfing Life.
“It didn’t really sink in until we saw the signs they were holding up, saying, ‘Please help, we are Sri Lankan refugees’.”
The incident occurred about the same time that a boat carrying 150 people issued a distress signal off the coast of the Indonesian island of Java.
It is understood the boat was carrying asylum seekers and was heading to Christmas Island.
Six people have been located on a merchant vessel and a major search operation is looking for the other 144 people, but there are grave fears for their safety.
Mr Everingham said the asylum seekers he encountered yesterday presented a hand-written letter begging for help to get to Christmas Island. They asked for 2000 litres of diesel and water.
They claimed to have left India on August 8 but when they ran out of diesel were forced to float on the ocean for 10 days before a fishing vessel towed them to the islands on Tuesday morning.
“All of us are affected by the water so we please sir we kindly ask you to send off us to Australia,” the letter says.
Mr Everingham said in 10 years he had never seen asylum seekers in that area.
He gave them 10 kilos of rice, vegetables, cigarettes and soda water.
“They asked for $500 for fuel and not to call the police,” he said.
“I told them help is on the way and they said ‘thank you’, they were very polite.
“We all just feel sorry for them, mate, it’s a very heavy thing to see; there’s women and children and elderly on there, all floating at sea for 10 days with no fuel.
“…but we have to keep our distance. We can’t have them come aboard and demand we drive them to Australia, that’s not a situation that can happen.”
Mr Everingham said the Indonesian authorities were notified and had taken the matter “very seriously”.
The tourists, including three Australians, however, were still keen to hit the waves.
“The guests all had a surf this morning ‘cos the surf’s going off,” Mr Everingham said.
“They’ve got the blinkers on, they’re on holiday, but once I told them what the full situation was they’ve all been very keen to find out what’s going on and see if they can help at all.”