Dozens more rescued in Australia asylum seeker boat emergency

Australian authorities say 54 people have been rescued and one body found from a boat that apparently sank while bringing 150 asylum seekers from Indonesia.

Authorities also fear the worst for 67 asylum seekers who have not contacted family or friends since they left Indonesia on an Australia-bound boat in late June.

In the latest incident a boat reportedly carrying 150 people sank off the main Indonesian island of Java on Wednesday. The crew of a merchant ship taking part in the search, the Liberian-flagged APL Bahrain, spotted survivors in the water early on Thursday 45 miles south-west of Java and rescued six, said Jason Clare, the Australian home affairs minister.

The Bahrain's captain, Manuel Nistorescu, told the Fairfax Media website that the initial six rescued, all Afghan men, appeared to be in good condition and had been in the water for almost 24 hours. There were also women and children aboard the asylum-seeker boat when it sank, he said, and he saw what he believed were bodies in the water.

Other merchant ships, Indonesian government ships and Australian military boats and planes joined the search and found more survivors.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said all those rescued would be taken for treatment to Merak, 75 miles west of Jakarta.

The emergency is the latest in a human smuggling trade in which thousands of would-be refugees from countries including Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka attempt dangerous sea voyages from Indonesia to Australia.

Australia's minority Labor party government will in September resume deportation of refugee claimants to neighbouring Naura and Papua New Guinea while they are assessed.

But the rush is on to get in before the policy is in place. More than 1,900 people arrived in Australia in August, the highest monthly total on record. More than 9,800 asylum seekers have arrived this year, more than double the total for all of 2011.

"People smugglers are running a closing-down sale," said Clare. Asylum seekers would stop paying people smugglers $10,000 or more to transport them more 250 miles from Indonesia or Malaysia by boat if they were not guaranteed acceptance on to Australian soil, he predicted.

A previous conservative government established the camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea a decade ago as part of a policy that slowed boat arrivals to a trickle but was condemned by human rights groups as cruel.

A Labor government closed the camps after winning elections in 2007, a year when only 339 asylum seekers arrived by boat. The growing numbers since then and the deaths at sea have angered many Australians.

More than 300 people have lost their lives making the perilous journey across the Sunda Strait between Indonesia and the Australian territory of Christmas Island since December 2011. More than 90 of them died in two boat accidents that occurred within a week of each other in June.


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