'Massive' search launched as fears grow for missing asylum-seekers

Lanai Vasek and Rick Morton
August 30, 2012 11:21AM

GRAVE fears are held for up to 144 asylum-seekers missing from a boat believed to have sunk off Indonesia, as six survivors were plucked from the ocean.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said search and rescue crews had a window of 36-48 hours to safely locate any survivors from the asylum vessel, which issued two distress calls early yesterday on its way to Christmas Island.

The merchant ship APL Bahrain pulled six men alive from the waters of the Sunda Strait early this morning, but those on board had reported there were up to 150 passengers on the boat, including women and children.

“Six people have been rescued but we hold grave fears for a lot more,” Mr Clare said.

“Potentially dozens and dozens haven't survived.”

Mr Clare defended the rescue effort after an Indonesian air and sea search yesterday failed to find the vessel, which said it had engine trouble and was taking on water. The search was called off yesterday afternoon.

“It's very hard to find people in distress on a little wooden boat,” the minister said.

After updated drift modelling was provided to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and to Indonesia's search and rescue organisation BASARNAS, the merchant vessel APL Bahrain was sent to a new location at about 9pm last night.

At about 3.30am today the Bahrain found six men in the water about 45 nautical miles off Java. The survivors used whistles to help attract the attention of the ship's crew.

“They are OK and we changed their clothes and gave them some water and food and now they are sleeping,” the chief officer of the APL Bahrain, Lipan Adrian, told The Australian.

“He said there were women and children on board the boat but those we rescued are all men.”

Mr Clare said he expected those on board the boat had suffered “incredible trauma” and there were grave fears for the rest, given people rarely survive for more than two days in open water.

After being called off last night due to poor light and bad weather, the search had now resumed.

“A massive search and rescue effort is going on right now, it involves up to seven vessels and one air force aircraft,” Mr Clare said.

Mr Clare said a decision would be made later today on whether the passengers would come to Australia, once the Australian navy vessel HMAS Maitland arrived at around 4pm.

“There is one guy who is speaking English and he spoke to the captain and said they are coming from Afghanistan and they want to come to Australia,” said Mr Adrian.

The Bahrain was sailing from Malaysia to Fremantle when it got the call from Australian authorities to help in the rescue.

But Mr Clare said he expected that those rescued would likely be sent to Indonesia.

“Given that this is so close to the coast, my expectation is the survivors will be taken to Indonesia,” he said.

Mr Clare defended the search effort, after Indonesia called off its air and sea operation yesterday afternoon.

“Let's remember how difficult this task is, this is a big stretch of water,” he said.

“Search and rescue is very hard. It's very hard to find people in distress on a little wooden boat. You do this by working together.

“I wouldn't say that crucial hours were lost. From the time we received a location we have been working as hard we possibly can to find people.”

About 300 asylum-seekers have died since December along the same route as the latest vessel, in the Sunda Strait between Java and Christmas Island.

Two weeks ago, the government announced its intention to transfer asylum-seekers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea in the Pacific as part of a tough new policy to deter them from making the dangerous sea voyage.

But they keep coming, with more than 1,000 boatpeople arriving since the policy was adopted.

Lanai Vasek


Back to sievx.com