Rescuers save women and children after their asylum boat capsized

PAUL MALEY
From: The Australian
June 27, 2012 3:18PM

MORE than 120 people have been rescued by merchant seamen after their asylum boat capsized today north of Christmas Island - the second sinking in a week.

A major rescue operation was launched after reports that up to 150 asylum-seekers, believed to be all women and children, were clinging to an overturned fishing vessel 100 nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

Authorities were today considering the possibility that the vessel was carrying the wives and children of the Afghan men and teenage males who were aboard last week's vessel that capsized in the same area with the loss of up to 90 people.

Julia Gillard told parliament shortly after 2pm (AEST) that latest information put the number of people on the boat at between 123 and 133, although she added the numbers were subject to revision, given the fluid nature of the situation.

“As we speak, my best advice is 123 people have been rescued,” she said.

Ms Gillard said it was unclear whether or not anyone from the boat was unaccounted for.

The navy's HMAS Maitland and three merchant vessels were at the scene. An air force P3 Orion plane was assisting the rescuers.

HMAS Leeuwin was also on its way and expected to arrive by 4pm AEST.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) is co-ordinating the rescue effort, even though the boat went down in Indonesia's search and rescue area.

An AMSA spokesperson said the sea conditions were “fair, but not ideal”.

Ms Gillard described how news of the rescue unfolded, sketching a confused and uncertain situation for searchers.

She said the Australian federal Police first received a call at 6.17am (AEST) from someone on the boat saying the vessel was in distress two nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

However, upon arriving at the scene, rescuers found nothing.

A second phone call was received at 7.30am (AEST) correcting the first report, saying the boat was in fact 107 nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

Two merchant vessels responded to a call issued by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and one, the MV Bison, spotted the boat at 10.30am (AEST).

On board were a number of passengers, many of whom were wearing lifejackets.

At 11.37am (AEST) the MV Bison reported the boat was sinking and people were in the water.

Life rafts were deployed and a rescue effort commenced, Ms Gillard said.

So far 123 people had been pulled from the water, she said.

At this stage there was no confirmation of any casualties.

The incident comes one week to the day after a boat carrying more than 200 people capsized north of Christmas Island on its way to Australia.

The tragedy, which claimed up to 90 lives, reignited the political debate over offshore processing, heaping pressure on both sides of politics to do a deal to restore some sort of deterrent.

News of today's disaster came as politicians from all sides of politics met in Canberra with a view to finding a way out of the policy deadlock, which came after the opposition refused to support legislation restoring offshore processing.

Today's incident was set to place unprecedented pressure on both sides of politics to strike a deal on offshore processing.

Since the High Court overturned offshore processing, asylum boats have been arriving at a record frequency, fulfilling the prophecy of senior public servants, politicians and border security experts, who said an increase in boat traffic was inevitable without a robust deterrent.

More than 40 MPs from all sides of politics have joined a cross-parliamentary group demanding a compromise solution to the nation's border protection crisis.

The growing cross-parliamentary group met today and was due to release a statement this afternoon.

Labor backbencher and founding member of the cross-parliamentary group, Steve Georganas, said the unfolding tragedy showed the nation's politicians must immediately act to break the asylum-seeker deadlock.

“This just shows the urgency of the matter,” he said.

“It will increase the pressure on both sides to come up with a solution.”

Labor backbencher Graham Perrett said he and other MPs had contributed to the tragedy through their failure to agree on a solution to the people-smuggling crisis.

“When you feel complicit in it, it brings out the emotions,” he said.

“I hold all 150 members of the parliament equally responsible for the position of the parliament on this.”

Nationals MPTony Crook said: “My conscience has certainly been pricked by this.”

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie urged the parliament to act quickly.

“This parliament has to stop the problem. Both the government and opposition have to swallow their pride,” he said.

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