(Reuters) – On New Year’s day, 45 asylum seekers in a ramshackle wooden boat slid ashore on a small island off the Australian city of Darwin. Four others had been swept overboard that morning in rough seas and were believed dead.
The survivors, from Africa and the Middle East, stumbled onto the beach, thankful to find refuge on Australian soil. Or so they thought.
Within an hour, an Australian warship and other vessels arrived. Military personnel forced the asylum seekers back onto their wooden boat and towed it out to sea. Their destination: Indonesia.
Determining precisely what happened is difficult. But interviews with five of the passengers reconstructs a journey they say was marked by physical and verbal abuse.
Their accounts highlight just how far the newly elected conservative government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott is going to meet his election promise to “stop the boats” – a policy which involves towing vessels back to Indonesia, the main departure point for people-smuggling boats.