August 29, 2012
A boat carrying 150 suspected asylum seekers is reportedly sinking. Source: Getty Images
A SEARCH has failed to find any trace of an asylum-seeker boat carrying an estimated 150 passengers after reports it was in distress off the coast of Indonesia.
The Indonesian search and rescue authority Basarnas said the wooden boat was early today reported to be in trouble or sinking in the Sunda Strait, between Java and Sumatra, and about 220 nautical miles from Christmas Island.
It also advised of reports of drownings.
However a spokesman for Basarnas said at least four vessels and two helicopters had searched the area today without finding any sign of the missing boat.
Gagah Prakoso said late this afternoon (AEST) the search had found no evidence of a boat sinking, survivors or bodies, and had been suspended.
Basanas had been alerted to the emergency by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority early today and vessels had been sent from Jakarta and Merak, but returned without success.
Helicopters involved in the search had also returned to base.
Commercial shipping through the heavily-travelled Sunda Strait was alerted.
“After hours of searching around the site where it’s said to be sunk, we found nothing. There’s no sign at all if the boat sank,” Prakoso said.
“Usually when a boat sinks, there should be a sign, maybe one or two people may be floating using parts of the boat.
“But there’s nothing.”
Basarnas said the caller to AMSA had reported that the wooden boat was carrying about 150 people, and was sinking at a location in waters off Ujung Kulon, an area on the westernmost tip of Java.
The call to AMSA, made using a satellite phone, was the last contact with the missing boat.
Canberra is facing a steady influx of asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by boat, many of whom use Indonesia as a transit hub, boarding leaky wooden vessels after fleeing their home countries.
Australian authorities this month said 300 boatpeople had died en route to the country this year, with boats being intercepted by the Australian navy almost on a daily basis.
A high-level meeting between Australian and Indonesian officials will be held next week at which the issue of maritime co-operation, including in the area of search and rescue, is set to be discussed.
The boats continue to arrive despite Labor adopting a new hardline policy of sending asylum-seekers to be processed on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
The policy switch followed the report earlier this month by a panel of experts led by former defence chief Angus Houston, which had been “deeply concerned” about the loss of life at sea.
It said from late 2001 to June 2012, 964 asylum-seekers and boat crew had been lost at sea while en route to Australia. Of these, 604 people had died since October 2009.