The tragedy that shames Australia

At least 28 asylum-seekers drowned in shipwreck off Christmas Island

Australia's hardline refugee policies were blamed yesterday for the deaths of at least 28 asylum-seekers whose wooden boat smashed into jagged rocks off Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.

Residents of the rugged volcanic island, an offshore Australian territory, attempted to help, throwing life jackets and ropes into the boiling seas. But they were forced to watch, horrified, as the boat was dashed to pieces and its occupants were scooped up by massive waves and hurled against the limestone cliffs.

By last night 28 bodies had been recovered from waters so rough that volunteers standing on the 100ft cliffs were soaked by ocean spray and had to dodge debris flying up from the vessel below. Forty-one asylum-seekers were picked up by the Australian Navy, and one man made it to shore alone. It is thought that up to 100 people may have been on the boat, and with rescue efforts hampered by the mountainous seas and atrocious weather conditions, it is feared that the death toll will rise as high as 50.

Simon Prince, a dive boat operator who raised the alarm after being woken at 5.45am by screams for help, told The Independent: "People were flying through the air and being crushed against the cliffs. There were dead bodies in the water, children. I've got some very disturbing imagery stuck in my head: a little girl lying face down in the water." The rickety fishing boat, believed to have been carrying mainly Iranians and Iraqis, had sailed from Indonesia – a route plied by the majority of refugees heading for Australia. Christmas Island, 1,600 miles north-west of Perth but only 220 miles from Indonesia, is the first land that such vessels encounter. It is also the site of Australia's largest immigration detention centre.

Yesterday's disaster shocked Australians, with some denouncing the "people smugglers" who had set out in treacherous cyclonic conditions. Refugee advocates, meanwhile, claimed the government's hostility to illegal immigrants had played a part. "The fact there isn't a welcome refugee policy... [makes] it less likely that people on boats are willing to contact Australian authorities and to rendezvous [safely]," said Ian Rintoul, of the Refugee Action Coalition.

Pamela Curr, from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said Australian border officials must have known the vessel was on its way. "They allowed this boat to head towards Christmas Island, knowing there's a three to five-metre swell which would make it impossible for such a fragile fishing boat to land safely."

The island, ringed by limestone pinnacles and deep water, is always potentially hazardous for sailors, but particularly during the November-March monsoon season. Yesterday the ocean was "like a washing machine", according to Michael Foster, a local electrician. Footage shot by one witness shows the sea being whipped into a frenzy amid driving rain and gale-force winds.

The winds blew many of the life jackets back on to shore. But even people who managed to grab one did not survive. A Navy ship around the other side of the island, picking up asylum-seekers from a separate boat, took an hour to reach the scene.

After losing engine power, the stricken boat washed backwards and forwards for about an hour, "within arm's reach of the island", Mr Prince said "Then it hit the cliffs with a crack, and that's when it all really started to go to hell."

Islanders, helped by police and customs officers, formed human chains to toss down life jackets and ropes. Mr Foster saw "a heap of people" hanging off a rope at one stage. "Then the rope snapped, so they lost them," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Mr Prince said it was heartbreaking not being able to reach the victims. "When you see people in such trouble, you want to dive in and save them." Navy rescuers eventually arrived in inflatable dinghies, but were unable to save all of the people in the water. Three injured survivors – two with head wounds, one with abdominal injuries – were being evacuated to Perth. The Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said: "The government's focus now is on rescue, recovery and treatment of those injured."

The number of asylum-seekers landing at Christmas Island has risen steeply over the past year, and, with the processing centre overflowing, the government has opened new facilities on the mainland. The UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, said the disaster was "a tragic reminder of the danger faced by people fleeing persecution and human rights violations in their home countries, and the desperate measures they will resort to in search of safety".

Christmas Island: A history

The rugged tip of an extinct volcano, Christmas Island was not inhabited until 1888, when Britain realised it contained rich phosphate deposits. The British, who brought in indentured workers from China and south-east Asia to extract the phosphate, gave the island to Australia in 1958.

Situated much closer to Indonesia than Australia, the island – first sighted on Christmas Day 1643 by a British Naval captain, William Mynors – is still inhabited mainly by descendants of those Chinese and Malay mineworkers. But the 1,200-strong permanent population is dwarfed by the thousands of asylum-seekers housed in two detention centres, along with Australian police and immigration officials.

A four-hour flight from Perth, the island was once known as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean because of its profusion of endemic species. Its annual migration of native red crabs, which swarm from the rainforest to the ocean to breed and lay eggs, is one of the world's great natural wonders.

The tropical island became notorious in 2001 after the former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, refused to allow the Tampa, a Norwegian tanker carrying shipwrecked asylum-seekers, to land. His government later built a detention centre there, which now operates as Australia's main offshore refugee processing facility.

Phosphate is still the island's biggest employer, but mining is on the wane, and some locals are trying to develop an eco-tourism industry. Past economic projects have failed: a casino popular with Indonesian high-rollers closed in 1998. Plans for a satellite launch pad never got off the ground.

The island has one roundabout, one set of traffic lights and, instead of a newspaper, a blackboard on which public notices are scrawled.

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