Search called off in asylum boat tragedy

Sam Maiden and Kieran Campbell
News Limited Network July 14, 2013 2:23PM

A baby boy died and 88 people were plucked to safety after the vessel capsized some 87 nautical miles north of the Australian territory of Christmas Island on Friday morning.

Rescuers, alerted by a distress call, were only able to reach the scene late that evening and a short time later a huge wave broke over the boat and it began to sink.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said the search and rescue operation was called off after dark on Saturday.

"This decision was made based on the high probability that anyone alive would have been found during the day and on medical advice on survivability," AMSA said in a statement on Sunday.

Two navy patrol boats, a merchant vessel, a military aircraft and two maritime rescue planes were involved in combing the seas.

On the issue of it taking four-and-a-half hour gap between the alert about the boat and rescue vessels being directed, an AMSA spokeswoman said: "It takes time to locate the vessel and direct other vessels to respond to the area."

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described the event as "a genuine human tragedy'' and signalled a shift on asylum seeker policy.

"Regrettably, this human tragedy highlights the absolute need for us to continue to adjust our policies,'' he said in Brisbane.

Mr Rudd confirmed changing the rules determining asylum seeker status was one option to deter people smugglers.

"Working on visa arrangements, working on the criteria which are used by decision makers in Australia on whether or not a person has bona fide refugee status in Australia or not,'' he said.

"This is an absolute priority for the government. We will have more to say about this."

A Melbourne man alerted authorities on Friday morning about the boat and said he had been rung by someone on the vessel.

The tragedy has again raised concerns that people smugglers are risking the lives of asylum seekers on unsafe boats or even disabling the vessels in a dangerous tactic designed to ensure a navy pick up.

The man was able to provide partial GPS details, prompting authorities to broadcast a call for assistance to boats in the area.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said that "information from the caller suggested that the vessel was disabled, that it was taking on water and that there were over 90 people on board''.

But it was four-and-a-half hours after the Melbourne man's call that a Customs' boat was directed to head to the provided coordinates.

In recent months, Australia has been alerted to boats in distress only to arrive and find it is not sinking but that asylum seekers wished to be transferred to Christmas Island for processing by Australia.

"The search for survivors is continuing,'' Mr Clare said.

"The little baby boy was under one year of age. The passengers on the boat are from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka."

A merchant vessel, the Garden City River, then reached the stricken vessel at 5pm (AEST).

"(Customs) had two tenders and a life raft in the water and (was) working to recover people from the water,'' Mr Clare said.

Further help was sought about 10pm and the Navy sent two boats.

The Garden City River is based in Singapore and managed by Anglo Eastern Shipmanagement.

A spokesman for the company, Surendra Dutt, said the oil tanker was en-route to Kwinana in Perth when it was asked by the navy to assist in the search and rescue of the asylum seeker boat.

"Our vessel is still on hand to render any assistance that may be required and will only resume her voyage when released by the Nnvy from search and rescue duties," Mr Dutt said.

He could not say if the Garden City River had been involved in rescuing any asylum seekers from the water.

About 2.20am Customs reported it had rescued 88 people and recovered the body of the baby boy.

Customs took the asylum seekers, who are from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, to Christmas Island.

The navy would continue to search for survivors, Mr Clare said.

Opposition spokesman Scott Morrison said the shocking loss of life demanded a better policy response by the Rudd government.

"This is yet another terrible tragedy. At the rate of current arrivals, such incidents are equally shocking but sadly can no longer be considered unexpected. These latest souls lost follow the more than 1300 others we know to have perished over the last five years at sea," he said.

Mr Rudd promised action in coming weeks.

"Right across our region there are events occurring which affect the flow of people and the actions of people smugglers," he said.

"That is why our response in terms of elevating the work we do cooperatively with the Indonesians and others is now urgent. Other measures in terms of the continued adjustment of our border protection policy are also critical."


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