At least 18 asylum-seekers are feared dead after their overcrowded boat capsized in Indonesian waters, in a tragedy that the Australian government linked yesterday to the thwarting of its controversial "Malaysia solution".
Eight bodies had been recovered by last night, and Indonesian authorities said they held out little hope for at least 10 people still missing after the boat sank in rough seas off Java, en route to Australia, on Tuesday. They warned the death toll could rise, as it was not clear how many asylum-seekers were on the leaky wooden vessel.
The Australian Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, said the Malaysia deal was aimed at preventing such loss of life, as it would have deterred would-be refugees from making the perilous voyage across the Indian Ocean. "This is a terrible tragedy, but it is a fact that when you have more boats coming to Australia, you will see more deaths," he said.
The policy – under which 800 asylum-seekers arriving in Australia would have been sent to Malaysia for processing in exchange for Australia accepting 4,000 refugees waiting in Malaysia to be resettled – was declared illegal by the High Court in August.
Last month, the conservative opposition refused to back a bill which would have changed the law and enabled the policy to be reinstated. As a result, the government has been forced to revert to processing people on Australian territory.
The nine-metre boat was carrying three crew and about 70 asylum-seekers from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indonesia is a key transit country for people from the Middle East and south Asia seeking to reach Australia.
The boat began taking on water shortly after leaving the port of Cilacap, in central Java, and capsized early on Tuesday. Fifty-two people have been rescued. Half a dozen children, including three girls aged about two, are believed to be among the dead or missing.
The sinking follows an accident last year off Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, in which up to 50 asylum-seekers died when their boat was hurled on to rocks in a storm.
The opposition spokesman on immigration, Scott Morrison, accused the government of politicising the latest tragedy, and said people-smugglers were responsible for the deaths at sea.
An Indonesian police officer involved in the rescue operation, Samsudin, told Australian Associated Press: "We believe there were at least 59 Iranian, three Afghani and six from Pakistan [on the boat]. But the number is not supported by documents, and there is a language problem too. So we can't tell exactly the number missing."
Brigadier General Agung Sabar Santoso, who heads an anti-people smuggling task force, said his investigators were determined to find out who was responsible for organising the voyage.