30 Aug 2012

More survivors found in asylum boat sinking

10:41 pm on 30 August 2012

Authorities have found 45 survivors from an asylum-seeker boat which sank en route to Australia amid fears scores more have drowned.

Search and rescue teams are scouring the Sunda Strait as hopes fade for many of the 150 asylum-seekers who had been on the wooden boat which put out a distress call early on Wednesday.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said on Thursday night that HMAS Maitland had recovered 45 survivors.

Three of the survivors are seriously injured, with one reportedly bitten by a shark while waiting to be rescued.

Six of the survivors were rescued earlier in the day by merchant vessel the APL Bahrain.

An Indonesian search and rescue vessel, as well as a police patrol boat, would meet with the Bahrain in the afternoon to try and unload the survivors and transfer them to the port of Merak in western Java, AAP reports.

Almost 300 asylum-seekers have already died along the same route, in the Sunda Strait between Java and Christmas Island, since December this year.

A high-level meeting between Australian and Indonesian officials will be held next week at which the issue of maritime co-operation, including in the area of search and rescue, is set to be discussed.

Initial response questioned

Questions are being raised about the initial response to the unfolding tragedy.

The wooden boat had been on its way to Christmas Island when its pump failed, prompting a distress call to the Australian Maritime and Safety Authority about 1.30am local time on Wednesday.

The distress call indicated that the boat was in the Sunda Strait, about eight nautical miles from Java and about 220 nautical miles from Christmas Island.

However, a search coordinated by Indonesian search and rescue agency BASARNAS initially failed to locate the sinking boat or any survivors.

That search was then abandoned. It was not until early Thursday morning that the first survivors were found after AMSA provided the Indonesians with an updated likely position for the boat based on drift modelling.

The Bahrain, which had responded to an earlier broadcast to shipping, was then tasked to attend the broader search area. It appears the arrival of the Bahrain and other merchant vessels, almost 24 hours after the boat sank, may have been too late for many of the asylum seekers.

Australia's Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare on Thursday defended the search effort.

"Don't underestimate how hard it is to find people in the middle of the sea. It's very, very hard and authorities have been working this issue since the time they got the original information yesterday morning."

Mr Clare also warned that people smugglers were rushing to get people on boats before detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island are up and running.