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The BBC's Red Harrison
"Only four people are known to have survived"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 13 December, 2000, 08:23 GMT
Migrants missing in Australian seas

Up to 163 illegal migrants were feared to have drowned in stormy seas off Australia's northern coast.

The weather conditions to the north of Australia have been atrocious

Philip Ruddock
Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said there were credible reports that two boats had left Indonesia last week but had failed to arrive at the weekend, as expected.

One boat carrying 87 people went missing while making the short trip from Indonesia's southern island to Ashmore Islands - an outcrop of reefs to the north-west of Australia.

Immigration official stamping passport
Many who make that journey are of Middle Eastern origin
"The weather conditions to the north of Australia have been atrocious, and there are reports that another boat, carrying 80 passengers, has also disappeared," he said.

Tropical Cyclone Sam passed oover Australia's north-west coast last week.

The nationalities of the boat people are not known, but Mr Ruddock said most illegal migrants who make that journey were of Middle Eastern origin.

"Recently, we've seen people from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and a small number of Palestinians," he said.

Many of them embark on the journey in unseaworthy vessels.

The Australian government estimates that one-third of boats trying to bring people illegally to Australia never make it.

Search for survivors

Philip Ruddock
Ruddock said the rescue operation would be difficult
Mr Ruddock said the authorities were investigating reports that a Japanese tanker had picked up four survivors from one boat.

"I have asked for appropriate agencies to undertake further investigations... and see whether or not there are other survivors."

He said the immigration department's coast watch service, the navy and police were all assisting in the efforts.

But he said the rescue operation would be difficult.

"We're dealing here with a group of people whose intention was to arrive without notice, clandestinely, on vessels that really don't have the sort of navigational devices and identification equipment that would enable a search and rescue operation to be able to be mounted," he said.

More than 4,000 boat people arrived illegally in Australia in the first six months of this year.

Indonesia and Australia have both been working to try and stop the trafficking of people between the two countries.

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See also:

12 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
Australia wins support against migrants
15 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
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Immigrants in Australia breakout
07 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
Boat people stitch up lips
18 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
Australians seize Iraqi 'illegals'
06 Jun 99 | Asia-Pacific
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