No more survivors from Christmas Island tragedy

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The Independent Online

Hopes of finding more survivors of the shipwreck off Christmas Island faded yesterday, as the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, warned that the death toll from the "terrible human tragedy" was likely to rise.

Eight children are among the 30 people confirmed dead after a wooden boat carrying Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish asylum-seekers was wrecked in mountainous seas off the island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, on Wednesday. Rescuers battled continuing huge swells as they scoured the area yesterday, but by dusk they had failed to find anyone else alive. They discovered two more bodies, that of a young child and a man in his late 20s.

Forty-two people survived the disaster which was witnessed from the cliff tops by islanders who threw lifejackets into the water but were otherwise impotent to help. The boat, which had sailed from Indonesia, smashed to pieces after being hurled against the island's rocky coast.

Ms Gillard, who cut short a holiday to deal with the aftermath, announced a criminal investigation as well as a coroner's inquiry. She also offered to form a cross-party committee to co-ordinate the political response but the main opposition group rejected this.

Claims that Australian authorities tracked the doomed boat from Indonesia, allowing it to approach Christmas Island in treacherous conditions, were rejected by the government. The Home Affairs Minister, Brendan O'Connor, said radar detection had been "nigh on impossible" because of the weather and the boat's wooden construction, and according to Ms Gillard the vessel was not spotted until it was in distress.

The Australian Navy and Customs Service intensively patrol waters near the island, which because of its location – just 220 miles from Java – is the main destination for asylum-seekers. More than 130 boats have arrived there this year, mostly with refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka. Larger vessels are usually tracked after they leave Indonesia but smaller craft are sometimes not seen until they reach Christmas Island.

Little is known about those who made the perilous journey that culminated in tragedy this week. A victim identification team arrived on Christmas Island yesterday with Red Cross workers, translators and trauma counsellors. Last night they were still trying to determine which survivors had lost family members.

Just how many people were on board the boat is unclear although estimates put the number at between 70 and 100. Ms Gillard said: "We have got to prepare ourselves for the likelihood that more bodies will be found and there has been further loss of life than we know now. Yesterday we saw a truly horrific event, a terrible human tragedy on what is a very dangerous coastline ... I know the nation is shocked."

Five seriously injured people have been flown to Perth, 1,600 miles away, for treatment, but the government rejected calls by refugee advocacy groups for the other survivors to be taken to the mainland. It conceded only that they will be allowed to live – temporarily at least – within the community rather than being incarcerated in the immigration detention centre at the far end of the island.

Mr O'Connor said among the survivors were eight children, one unaccompanied minor and three Indonesian crew. He defended the time – more than an hour – that Navy and Customs vessels took to reach the scene, saying they had been sheltering from the weather on the other side of the island. "They made it as quickly as possible to Flying Fish Cove to provide whatever assistance they could to the boat that was breaking up on the rocks."

The Australian Lawyers Alliance called for an independent judicial inquiry to "look at matters empirically" and examine the Navy's response. Its director, Greg Barns, said: "We want to stop politicians having a blame game by dancing on the graves of those who perished."