August 31, 2012
Authorities have found 55 survivors from an asylum-seeker boat which sank en route to Australia, but there are fears many more have drowned.
The search for more survivors was scaled back as night fell on Thursday as hopes continued to fade for many of the estimated 150 asylum seekers who had been aboard the wooden boat when it sank in the Sunda Strait off the coast of Indonesia.
Three of those rescued so far had serious injuries but were in a stable condition. They were receiving treatment aboard the Australian naval vessel HMAS Maitland.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said the search for more survivors would resume at first light on Friday.
While the majority of those rescued were aboard HMAS Maitland, there were also plans on Thursday evening to try to transfer some of the survivors to the port of Merak in western Java.
An Indonesian police patrol boat was scheduled to rendezvous with the merchant vessel, the APL Bahrain, which had plucked six men from the water in the early hours of Thursday morning.
It is understood, however, that the men were reluctant to be returned to Indonesia.
Almost 300 asylum seekers have already died along the same route, between Java and Christmas Island, since December.
The latest incident will see that toll rise even further.
As the search continued, questions were also being raised about the initial response to the unfolding disaster.
The boat had been on its way to Christmas Island when its pump failed, prompting a distress call to AMSA at about 1.30am local time (1630 AEST) on Wednesday.
However, a search coordinated by the Indonesian search-and-rescue agency, BASARNAS, initially failed to locate the sinking boat or any survivors.
That search was then abandoned.
It was not until early Thursday morning that the first survivors were found after AMSA provided the Indonesians with an updated likely position for the boat based on drift modelling.
The Bahrain, which had responded to an earlier broadcast to shipping, was then tasked to attend the broader search area.
It appears the arrival of the Bahrain and other merchant vessels, almost 24 hours after the boat sank, may have been too late for many of the asylum seekers.
Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare on Thursday defended the search effort.
“Don’t underestimate how hard it is to find people in the middle of the sea,” Mr Clare said.
“It’s very, very hard and authorities have been working this issue since the time they got the original information yesterday morning.”
Mr Clare also warned that people smugglers were rushing to get people on boats before detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island are up and running.
“People smugglers are running a closing-down sale,” he said.
The comments come ahead of a visit by Mr Clare to Jakarta next week, when the issue of search and rescue is set to be discussed.
Plans to boost maritime co-operation between Australia and Indonesia, aimed at stemming the flow of asylum-seeker boats to Christmas Island, are also expected to feature on the agenda.