Four dead and 130 rescued as asylum seeker boat capsizes off Australian island

 

Four people are believed to have died and 130 others were rescued after a crowded boat carrying asylum seekers to Australia capsized and sank today, less than a week after more than 90 people drowned on a similar journey.

The incident, which occurred midway between Australia's Christmas Island and the main Indonesian island of Java, has renewed Australian government efforts to deter a growing stream of boat arrivals by legislating to deport them to other Southeast Asian or Pacific countries.

An air and sea search for survivors ended late today when the Australian Maritime Safety Authority determined that no one beyond the 130 rescued had survived the sinking of the wooden Indonesian fishing boat. Only one body had been recovered.

"Based on information from the survivors, including crew members, it is now believed that there were 134 people on board and that three people went down with the vessel," the authority said in a statement.

Three merchant ships, two Australian warships and an Australian air force plane that can drop life rafts to the sea responded to the capsizing.

The search area was 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Christmas Island and 185 kilometers (115 miles) south of Java. The boat capsized in Indonesia's search and rescue zone but Australian authorities raised the alarm after the crew made a satellite phone call to Australian police.

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

Last Thursday, 110 people were rescued when a boat carrying more than 200 mostly Afghan asylum seekers capsized just 24 kilometers (15 miles) 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 center.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said the survivors of today's incident would be delivered to Christmas Island early tomorrow.

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 UN-recognized refugees living there. The opposition won't support the legislation because Malaysia has not signed the UN Refugee Convention.

Today, 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."

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 tomorrow.

Gillard warned senators that tomorrow was their last chance to introduce laws before Parliament adjourns until Aug. 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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