Asylum seekers on wrecked boat drown off Australian island

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

SYDNEY - At least 30 asylum seekers drowned after their boat ran onto rocks on reaching Australia’s Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island, officials said Wednesday.

“A number of people have been rescued, but sadly, some bodies have been retrieved,” Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan told reporters in Sydney.

Officials confirmed 41 of the estimated 80 people thrown from the boat had clambered up the rocks or been picked up by customs and navy vessels that went to their rescue.

Kamar Ismail said he and fellow locals watched helplessly as up to 60 people aboard the wooden fishing boat were thrown overboard as it was dashed against the rocks by the 3-metre swell.

“A big wave smashed the boat into the rocks and smashed it into pieces,” he told the national broadcaster ABC. “We weren’t far from the rocks. … We were maybe 3 metres from the cliff, but we just couldn’t help. … It was just too dangerous.”

Local electrician Michael Foster said it was heartbreaking that the huge seas made it too dangerous to help survivors of the sinking who were being battered against the rocks.

The boat foundered at first light, apparently after losing power. Residents in nearby Flying Fish Cove were alerted to the unfolding tragedy by the screams of those in the water.

“With the horrendous seas as they are, the only thing that people could do from the mainland was really throw life jackets back into the water or just advise them to swim away from the rocks,” Foster said.

Locals said those aboard the boat - men, women and children - were either Iraqis or Iranians.

In recent months, more than three boats a week have been landing on Christmas Island, loaded with mostly Middle Eastern asylum seekers making the passage across from Indonesia’s Java Island.

More than 2,000 asylum seekers were being held in the Christmas Island immigration detention centre with 3,000 more in similar facilities on the Australian mainland.

Christmas Island, which has a permanent population of 1,400 people, is 360 km south of Java and 2,600 km north-west of Perth.

Opposition Liberal Party immigration spokesman Scott Morrison faulted the government for not doing enough to deter asylum seekers from paying people smugglers to get them across from Indonesia to Australia.

“If this is indeed true, it highlights once again how very dangerous this business is of people coming by boat and why it’s so important again that we do everything possible to ensure that these boats don’t come in this way,” Morrison said. “This is a very

upsetting event and potentially a very significant tragedy.”

Filed under: Accidents and Disasters

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