Yet another asylum-seeker tragedy was playing out in the Indian Ocean last night, with at least 75 people believed drowned when their boat capsized and a second boat reportedly also in trouble.
Details of the second vessel remained sketchy as darkness fell but the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the Indonesian navy was searching for a stricken boat carrying 100 passengers. Meanwhile, 90 people were still missing late last night from the first boat, which overturned half-way between Indonesia and the Australian territory of Christmas Island.
That boat was carrying about 200 people, 110 of whom had been plucked from the choppy waters by an Australian Navy patrol boat and three cargo ships by late yesterday. Forty were clinging to the upturned hull when they were spotted by chance by a Customs and Border Protection surveillance plane yesterday afternoon.
“We have grave fears for the remainder,” said the Police Commissioner of Western Australia, Karl O’Callaghan, who added that bodies had been seen in the water. Early estimates suggested that up to 75 people had drowned, he said. The occupants of both boats were believed to be Sri Lankan asylum-seekers heading to Australia, possibly in convoy.
The accident is the latest in a series of tragedies to befall asylum-seekers making the perilous journey across the Indian Ocean in often unseaworthy boats. Just six months ago, about 200 drowned after their overcrowded vessel sank off the main Indonesian island of Java. In December 2010, nearly 50 asylum-seekers died when their boat crashed on to cliffs at Christmas Island.
The latest deaths are likely to rekindle the bitter political debate about refugee policy. The Australian Labor government has accused the conservative opposition of encouraging people to risk their lives to reach Australia by blocking a plan to process asylum-seekers in Malaysia. The opposition, meanwhile, condemns the government as a “soft touch”, pointing to the 57 boats that have arrived in Australia already this year – three of them off Christmas Island in the past two days.
With Indonesian ships and aircraft also heading to the location of the latest accident, rescuers planned to search through the night for more survivors. Those already rescued were being taken to Christmas Island, which lies nearly 1,000 miles off the Australian mainland and is a favourite destination for asylum-seekers. The Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said: “This is a very distressing and tragic incident.”