Middle East

Lebanese village in shock after boat sinks off Java

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A village in Lebanon's north, near the Syrian border, is in deep shock after hearing of the sinking of an asylum-seeker boat near West Java last Friday.

Just 28 asylum-seekers have been found alive since the boat, carrying about 80 people from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq broke apart.

Most of the Lebanese victims of the asylum-seeker boat sinking came from the little town of Qabeit, in Lebanon's north, near the Syrian border.

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The former mayor of Qabeit, Ali Hamza, has told SBS radio's Arabic program he found out about it when a survivor called him from Indonesia.

"The smallest village in this area here has 6,000 residents, and now it lost 18 people: children, women, boys and girls from different ages. They paid money, each travel for each person costs $15,000 to reach Australia. They pay it to the mafias who carry them on the sea. They have dealers in Lebanon, Malaysia and Indonesia," he told SBS.

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Melbourne resident Ali Taleb has lost two sisters and 11 nephews and nieces in the tragedy.

He says he tried to talk his relatives out of making the boat journey.

"My brother went with them to Indonesia and he called me yesterday [Sunday], and he told me I'm coming, and I replied 'If you come with them I will never talk to you till the end of time', so he changed his mind and he stayed there."

But his sisters and their children followed their husbands on to the boat, and to their deaths.

Ali Taleb says he also tried to warn the Australian authorities. "Every time we speak to the Australian authorities, we tell them if you can't do anything about it let us try to speak to someone else, and they would say no, leave the issue a bit, leave the issue a bit."

The boat's sinking has deeply shocked many Lebanese, who have not followed Australia's news of asylum-seekers trying to get to Australia by boat.

Ali Amza says there are families in the north of Lebanon who are experiencing poverty for the first time, and it's the direct result of the influx of refugees from Syria.

Some Lebanese have begun employing Syrian labourers at much lower rates of pay than local workers, so Lebanese labourers are out of work and suddenly in financial crisis.

"The one whose family drowned, his wife and eight kids, his name is Hussain Khudir. For two years now he couldn't enrol his kids at school, he couldn't educate his kids or buy them books and uniforms, he sold his house, he sold his house in Lebanon," said Ali Amza.

Dr Michael Khairallah, from the Lebanese Community Council in Victoria, says he recently met the Australian Ambassador in Beirut, who told him he was aware of a people-smuggling racket operating in Lebanon.

"Some people called us from Lebanon and they said that people smuggling has started from Lebanon from border areas which have been always abandoned from the Lebanese government."

The people-smuggling racket, reportedly run by an Iraqi, was offering safe passage to Australia for $15,000.

"In Lebanon you can call any person from these smugglers and talk to him directly, and this issue was known in the open, and when I went to Lebanon, and talked with the Australian Ambassador there, and he is aware of this issues, the embassy tried the maximum effort to explain the message to the people not to take the risk and come to Australia."

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