A packed asylum-seeker boat in distress earlier this year. Photo: Reuters
FEARFUL asylum seekers have threatened each other with knives, fought among themselves and rescued at least one passenger who had fallen overboard during treacherous voyages to Australia in the past two years.
They have also been beaten and threatened by boat crews that they would be forced to swim for their lives, so the crews could make clean getaways back to Indonesia.
The snapshot of life aboard the rickety and often leaky boats that have brought tens of thousands of people to Australia has emerged through documents obtained by The Sunday Age under freedom-of-information laws.
Released by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, the documents relate to 10 boats that were intercepted and ended up at Christmas Island between March 2010 and June this year. They give an insight into the angry, distressed and frightened people, many of whom made clandestine emergency calls to Australian authorities, fearing that one way or another they were about to die at sea.
Interviews given by passengers and summarised by Australian agencies in the documents also reveal the tactics used by the people smugglers to avoid being discovered and stop passengers taking phones on board the boats.
In one account, passengers recounted how they had been locked inside a villa before they left Indonesia and had their mobiles taken to ''prevent any information leaks''. They were given back the mobiles and told to call home, before all the information was deleted from the phones and the SIM cards taken away.
In another case, people smugglers used metal detectors to scan each passenger to determine if they were hiding mobiles. One passenger who did not surrender his phone - hoping to keep it in case of an emergency - was discovered. He was then slapped and punched several times in the head.
''This was done in front of other passengers and so a few passengers who also had phones hidden took them out and threw them away before being scanned,'' passengers told authorities.
In another case, several passengers revealed that although the boat they were travelling on was seaworthy, they were so scared they secretly made emergency calls to Australian authorities, fearing they would be thrown into the water and made to swim or that they would hit the rocks of Christmas Island.
A report said that on one boat, the crew had told passengers they would drop them off on the land somewhere and then go back to Indonesia, so the asylum seekers called 000 from a phone that had not been detected. They did not tell anyone else they had rung the emergency number because they were scared the crew could find out.
Other documents reveal that a boat carrying 35 asylum seekers, which made distress calls to Australian authorities, floundered for three days before it was discovered ''dead in the water'' during a routine fly-over by an RAAF maritime patrol aircraft. The boat and all aboard were eventually rescued by HMAS Ararat.
Three weeks later, another boat that had also made several distress calls in vain ended up capsizing after two days - on June 21, 2012 - leaving 17 men dead and another 73 missing, presumed dead.
The documents demonstrate that in both cases the boats had called the Australian Maritime Safety Authority for help and a spokeswoman for the authority said it had passed the information to the Indonesian authorities.
However, no one came to the rescue of the boats.