CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia calls it a “closing-down sale” for people smugglers: Asylum-seekers in rickety boats are reaching its shores in record numbers ahead of a tougher deportation policy starting in September. For many migrants, the price of haste may be death.
About 150 people were aboard an overcrowded, wooden fishing boat that sank off the Indonesia coast as it headed for a remote Australian island. Only 55 people had been rescued by Thursday night, and the captain of one rescue vessel believes he saw bodies in the water.
The emergency was the latest created by a growing 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 center-left Labor Party government announced plans this month to deter future arrivals by deporting new asylum seekers who arrive by boat to the Pacific atoll of Nauru or to Australia’s nearest neighbor, Papua New Guinea. The government says they will be held in tent camps for as long as they would spend in refugee camps if they had not paid people smugglers to take them to Australia.
The new approach will begin when the Nauru camp opens in September, but meanwhile the rush is on. More than 1,900 people have arrived in Australia in August — the highest monthly total on record — in hopes of accelerating a refugee claims process that can take years.
The numbers have been steadily climbing: 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,” Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said. He predicts asylum seekers will stop paying people smugglers $10,000 or more to transport them more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Indonesia or Malaysia by boat if they are not guaranteed that they will be accepted by Australia.
A previous conservative government established 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. As the numbers have grown, the influx, and the deaths of would-be migrants at sea, have angered many Australians.
No asylum-seeker deaths have been confirmed since the policy change was announced, but more than 300 have lost their lives making the perilous journey across the Sunda Strait between Indonesia and the Australian territory of Christmas Island since December. More than 90 of them died in two boat accidents that occurred within a week of each other in June.
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 asylum seekers sank off the main Indonesian island of Java on Wednesday.
The crew of a merchant ship taking part in the search, Liberian-flagged APL Bahrain, spotted survivors in the water early Thursday 75 kilometers (45 miles) southwest of Java and rescued six, Clare said.
“There are grave fears for a lot more,” Clare told reporters.
The Bahrain’s captain, Manuel Nistorescu, told the Fairfax Media website that he was about to abandon the late-night search when he heard whistles and yelling from the dark water.
Nistorescu said the 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.
He added that he believed he saw bodies in the water. “I think I saw some of them dead,” he said.
Other merchant ships, Indonesian government ships and Australian military boats and planes also were involved in the search.
Indonesian search and rescue official Sunarbowo Sandi said that an Australian navy patrol boat and other merchant ships later retrieved an additional 49 survivors. He said six of them were hurt and in critical condition.
“High waves are hampering our search and rescue efforts,” Sandi said.
The distress call was received by Australian authorities early Wednesday by satellite phone from someone aboard the missing boat requesting help. The person said there were 150 people aboard and the vessel had engine trouble. The boat was then 15 kilometers (9 miles) off Java, officials said.
Indonesian authorities initially searched with two boats and a helicopter but found no trace of the boat by late Wednesday.
The merchant ship found the first six survivors after Australia expanded the search area.
Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini contributed to this report from Jakarta.
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