December 18, 2011

Rescue bid as migrant boat sinks off Indonesia

Asylum seekers try to reach Australia by sea every year

A rescue operation is under way after a boat carrying hundreds of asylum seekers sank off the Indonesian island of Java.
Strong waves wrecked the wooden boat about 90km (55 miles) out to sea, rescue officials said.
At least 250 people were said to be on board, although some reports put the number nearer to 400.
The boat was believed to be heading for Australia carrying asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Turkey and Iran.
"The boat sank Saturday evening and the national search and rescue team has already moved out to sea to start the search," rescue team member Brian Gauthier told state-run news agency Antara.
"It is somewhat difficult to go on with the search because extreme weather has caused reduced visibility."
Police told Antara that the vessel appeared to have been carrying more than twice its capacity.
Survivor Esmat Adine, a 24-year-old Afghan migrant, told the agency that the ship had started rocking violently from side to side, triggering panic among the tightly packed passengers.
"That made the boat even more unstable and eventually it sank," he said.
He added that he and others clung to parts of the broken vessel until they were rescued by local fishermen.
He estimated that more than 40 children were on the boat.

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Thousands of asylum seekers try to reach Australia by sea every year, many paying people-smugglers in Indonesia to transport them.
The BBC's Karishma Vaswami in Jakarta says Indonesia is often the transit point for refugees as international borders in the region are hard to control.
Australian Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare described the sinking as "a terrible tragedy".
"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 said.
Australia's policy of dealing with illegal migrants has been the subject of heated political debate in the country.
Opponents of Prime Minister Julia Gillard say her lack of action has emboldened the people smugglers to try to send as many to Australia as possible.
Australia's asylum policy has been in crisis since a court ruled a plan to swap refugees with Malaysia unlawful.

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