Conflict & Justice

Australian government blamed in sinking of asylum seeker boat off Indonesia


Relatives of some of the 30 killed when a boat full of asylum seekers crashed on the rocks at Christmas Island on Dec. 15, 2010, trying to reach Australian soil, grieve during Muslim and Christian services held Feb. 15, 2011 in Sydney, Australia.


Don Arnold

The Australian government's tough stance on asylum seekers has been linked to the sinking of boat carrying more than 200 people — mainly from Iran and Afghanistan — traveling from Indonesia.

Indonesian fishermen and local authorities have reportedly rescued survivors, though head counts vary from 33 to 87.

According to Agence France-Presse, the boat had a capacity of 100 but was overloaded with about 250 people when it sank on Saturday 40 nautical miles off eastern Java" in 16-foot waves and in shark-infested waters.

"We sent out four boats and two helicopters, but so far we haven't spotted anyone else floating. It's very likely they have all drowned," National Search and Rescue Agency spokesman Gagah Prakoso told AFP.

Survivors were floating in the sea for six hours before being rescued, survivors and officials told AFP.

The boat was "following a well-worn and occasionally disastrous route to the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island," according to the Australian Associated Press.

Refugee advocates have sought to lay some blame on the Australian government's border security policies — specifically deterrence measures that Canberra says are aimed at people smugglers, but which refugee advocates say create even more hazardous conditions for asylum seekers.

George Newhouse, a lawyer representing survivors of another boat tragedy off Christmas Island last December in which at least 30 mainly Iraqis and Iranians died, said Canberra's heavy penalties for people smuggling meant untrained "stooges" were in charge of vessels.

"To make matters worse, the government's policy of confiscating boats means the vessels which are used to transport asylum seekers are often unseaworthy with disastrous results," he said, AAP reported.


Refugee Action Coalition coordinator Ian Rintoul agreed the decision to criminalize people smuggling had played a role in the latest tragedy.

"If the government is worried about people losing their lives at sea, they should decriminalize people smuggling so that the voyages can be planned in open and seaworthy boats," he said.

Some reports even appeared to suggest that the Australian government knew about the ship's presence before it sank and did nothing.

Asked whether he had known anything about the ship before it sank Saturday night, Australia's Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said he would not comment on intelligence matters, reported.

He stressed that the sinking was a terrible tragedy that was above politics.

"Our focus today is on the search and rescue effort and our thoughts today are with the people who died and with the families of those still lost at sea," he told reporters in Sydney.

The official story is that Australian authorities in Jakarta were advised about the sinking late on Saturday night, and the information was transferred to Canberra early on Sunday morning.

Australia has since offered Indonesia support in the search for survivors, including use of an Orion aircraft.