Asylum seekers rescued after boat capsizes

Last updated 02:20 28/06/2012

Indonesia correspondent Michael Bachelard reports on the latest asylum seeker boat emergency unfolding north of Christmas Island.

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A crowded boat carrying asylum seekers to Australia capsized and sank on Wednesday and 130 survivors and one body were recovered from the Indian Ocean, less than a week after more than 90 people drowned on a similar journey.

An air and sea search was ongoing for as many as 19 people who could still be missing, Australian Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said.

"The information that we have is that there were as many as 150 people on the boat," Clare told reporters. "That leaves many people still unaccounted for."

Three merchant ships, two Australian warships and an Australian air force plane that can drop life rafts to the sea responded to the capsizing, which occurred midway between Australia's Christmas Island and the main Indonesian island of Java.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said the 150 people aboard the wooden fishing boat included men, women and children.

The search area is 200 kilometres north of Christmas Island and 185 kilometres south of Java. The boat capsized in Indonesia's search and rescue zone but Australian authorities raised the alarm, Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman Jo Meehan said.

The first merchant ship reached the scene more than four hours later, she said.

Last Thursday, 110 people were rescued when a boat carrying more than 200 mostly Afghan asylum seekers capsized just 24 kilometres from the latest tragedy. Only 17 bodies were recovered.

The survivors' refugee applications were being assessed at Christmas Island, where Australia runs an immigration detention centre.

Clare said the survivors of the latest tragedy would be delivered to Christmas Island early Thursday.

Australia is a common destination for boats carrying asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and other poor or war-torn countries.

In December 2010, an estimated 48 people died when an asylum seeker boat broke up against Christmas Island's rocky coast.

Last December, about 200 asylum seekers were feared drowned after their overcrowded ship bound for Australia sank off Java.

Other boats are suspected to have sunk unnoticed with the loss of all lives.

Last week's disaster rekindled debate in Parliament on how Australia should deter asylum seekers from risking the hazardous sea journey. The government wants to send new boat arrivals to Malaysia in exchange for accepting United Nations-recognised refugees living there.

The opposition won't support the legislation because Malaysia has not signed the UN Refugee Convention.

On Wednesday, Parliament began debating legislation that would enable the government to send asylum seekers to both Malaysia and the opposition's preferred option, Nauru.

Clare, who oversees ocean rescues, called for political compromise so that asylum seekers would learn that those who attempt to reach Australia by boat will not be allowed to stay.

"I believe that Australia has had a gutful of us fighting on this issue," Clare told Parliament. "They're sick of the politics, they're sick of hearing of more people dying, they're sick of us yelling at each other and they just want us to fix this."

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The bill scraped through the House of Representatives by two votes late Wednesday, but the minor Greens party has pledged to vote with the opposition to block it in the Senate on Thursday.

Gillard warned senators that Thursday was their last chance to introduce laws before Parliament adjourns until August 14 and urged them to consider their votes carefully.

"We are on the verge of getting the laws we need," Gillard told reporters.

- AP

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