SYDNEY, New South Wales – A baby died and eight people were missing after a people-smuggling boat carrying 97 sunk in remote seas, Australian officials said Saturday, as authorities searched for survivors.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described it as a “genuine human tragedy” which underscored the importance of a regional response to people-smuggling, with hundreds dying in recent years in refugee boat accidents.
The vessel, which capsized some 87 nautical miles north of Christmas Island, first issued a distress call in rough seas between Australia and Indonesia on Friday morning, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare told reporters.
Rescuers were unable to reach the scene until 10 p.m. (1200 GMT), and a short time later Clare said a huge wave broke over the boat and it began to sink.
“Last night our officers have rescued 88 people and they’ve recovered the body of a little baby boy,” said Clare, adding that the infant was reportedly less than a year old.
“The advice to me is that there were 97 people on board and a search and rescue effort is happening right now.”
Two navy patrol boats and a merchant vessel were combing the seas 87 nautical miles north of Christmas Island, along with a military aircraft and two maritime rescue planes.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said a Customs ship reached the distressed vessel late Friday night and sent a boarding party shortly before a large wave caused it to capsize.
“A search of a 285-square-nautical-mile area involving two contracted aircraft and a Defence P3 Orion began at first light,” AMSA said.
“There is one deceased and an estimated eight people missing.”
Clare said the ill-fated ship was believed to have originated in Indonesia with passengers from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.
The 88 passengers plucked from the sea overnight had been transferred to immigration detention on the remote Christmas Island, Australia’s main facility for holding asylum-seekers arriving by boat, he added.
It is the second asylum boat incident on the dangerous people-smuggling sea passage from Java in a week, and follows talks between Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on the people-smuggling issue.
Rudd said Saturday’s emergency “underlines the absolute importance of Australia continu(ing) to adjust its policy to meet changing circumstances in the region and in the world”.
“The loss of any child’s life or of any person’s life at sea in these sorts of circumstances is a genuine human tragedy,” the prime minister said.
“Our response in terms of elevating the work we do cooperatively with the Indonesians and others is now urgent.”
Promising that he would “have more to say” regarding policy changes ahead of this year’s elections, Rudd highlighted source and transit country talks and tightening refugee claims and approvals as key areas.
“Other measures in terms of the continued adjustment of our border protection policy are critical,” he said.
Hundreds of asylum-seekers have drowned on the dangerous sea voyage from Indonesia when their rickety, overloaded boats sank.
More than 13,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in Australia by boat since January 1, piling pressure on the ruling Labor party in an election year.
It is a controversial political issue likely to loom large in the lead-up to polls to be held later this year.
The conservative opposition accuses Labor of losing control of Australia’s borders and proposes using the navy to tow back people-smuggling boats — a plan not welcomed by Jakarta.