Death toll rises as smugglers lift tempo

Lauren Wilson and Paul Maley
June 10, 2013 12:00AM

NAVY and merchant vessels, along with Customs and air force aircraft, were deployed yesterday to help stricken asylum-seekers, amid a surge of maritime emergencies between Indonesia and Christmas Island, in which 17 people have been killed, dozens more are feared drowned and about 350 had to be rescued.

Australian rescue authorities last night abandoned the search for 38 missing asylum-seekers whose boat appears to have sunk late last week.

The boat's passengers, who appear to have been thrown into the water some time after Wednesday, are probably dead.

No survivors from the vessel have been found.

As hopes for their survival disappeared, 78 Sri Lankans arrived at Christmas Island yesterday after being rescued off Cocos Island from their stricken boat by merchant vessel MT British Curlew on Friday.

HMAS Warramunga last night assisted a third boatload of 70 asylum-seekers, 110 nautical miles north of Christmas Island, and the Indonesian search and rescue agency Basarnas revealed it had assisted almost 200 asylum-seekers on two boats in the past five days.

The surge of boats comes as people-smugglers seek to send as many asylum-seeker boats as possible before the federal election, which is expected to lead to a change of government and tougher policies to stop the practice.

Three planes and two merchant vessels yesterday unsuccessfully scoured the ocean off Christmas Island for survivors from a boat that had been carrying a total of 55 men, women and children.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said yesterday 13 bodies had been spotted floating in the water 65 nautical miles off the coast of Christmas Island on Saturday. Further searches last night located four more bodies.

They are likely to be those of passengers on a boat that was spotted by an Australian Customs and Border Protection P3 Orion last Wednesday.

Mr Clare said the Orion personnel counted about 55 asylum-seekers on the boat.

HMAS Warramunga was dispatched to intercept the boat but could not find it at the estimated location.

The next day a P3 Orion spotted the capsized boat drifting 65 nautical miles northwest of Christmas Island.

Just before 9pm that night, an Orion spotted the first body floating in the water. About 3pm on Saturday, searchers found "up to nine" bodies in the water, and later another four were spotted.

The Australian understands that while authorities believe it is "probable" the sunken vessel spotted on Friday was the same boat spied from the air on Wednesday, they are not certain.

It is understood the colour of the debris in the water is different from the colour of the vessel.

Three planes - a Customs Dash 8, an AMSA Dornier and a chartered plane - joined two merchant vessels yesterday in scouring the seas for survivors.

AMSA late last night decided to abandon the search.

Midnight marked the maximum length of time rescuers calculate a person could survive in the water while wearing a lifejacket.

The tragedy was the latest in a long line of maritime disasters known to have occurred since asylum-seeker boats started arriving again in late 2008.

The sinkings have claimed more than 500 lives.

Neither major party was willing to buy in to the political debate yesterday while search and rescue operations were still under way. "We want to stop people getting on boats; we want to stop people dying at sea," Mr Clare said.

However, the loss of up to 55 lives at sea triggered fresh pleas for a policy overhaul from Labor Party lobby group Labor for Refugees.

Spokesman Robin Rothfield said Labor's policy of trying to deter asylum-seekers from boarding unsafe boats by reinstituting offshore processing had failed. He called on Julia Gillard to accept that her revived Pacific Solution had failed and abandon the policy for the good of the party's reputation.

"In order to restore some sense of honour to Australia's name, and to safeguard their place in history, the Gillard government should immediately terminate offshore processing and close down the detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island," Mr Rothfield said.

Labor backbencher Steve Georganas, who was instrumental in forming a working group of MPs from across the political divide last June after more than 100 asylum-seekers died at sea, also said more work needed to be done to stop lives being lost. "I feel very disheartened by this whole situation, that we are still seeing people drowning," he said.


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