CIDAUN: Rescuers searched the seas off Indonesia’s Java island on Wednesday for possibly dozens of asylum-seekers missing after their Australia-bound boat sank, leaving at least seven confirmed dead and 156 survivors.
Five children including an 18-month-old baby were among the dead, local police spokesman Achmad Suprijatna said, adding that a pregnant woman and a man in his 30s also died.
The boat left Indonesia just days after Canberra announced a tough new policy—that asylum-seekers who arrive by boat will no longer be resettled in Australia even if they are granted refugee status.
Instead, they could be resettled in poverty-stricken Papua New Guinea (PNG). Before the new policy announced Friday, new arrivals were already being taken to PNG or Nauru for processing of their asylum claims.
West Java province police spokesman Martinus Sitompul said that he believed 204 people were aboard the boat that began sinking on Tuesday evening, while a survivor said some 250 had boarded the vessel.
Chief of the rescue operation Rochmali, who goes by one name, said 157 people had been rescued and were given food and water, but one child later died.
“They will later be questioned by immigration officials. We have to do proper checks, but they say they’re from Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka,” he said.
More boats carrying survivors were seen on Wednesday afternoon arriving at the beach in the small fishing village of Cidaun, but it was not immediately clear how many more had been rescued.
The boatpeople had set off from southwestern Java before the boat sank, Rochmali said, adding fishermen had reported the incident and tried to save the asylum-seekers.
Rochmali said Indonesia’s rescue agency was alerted to the incident by Australian authorities on Tuesday evening. The boat was headed for Australia’s Christmas Island.
Asked about the tragedy, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd defended his policy, aimed at stemming the number of asylum-seekers arriving in the country by boat. A record 15,000 landed in 2012 and more than 15,000 have arrived so far this year.
He told reporters the policy was “about sending a very clear message to people-smugglers that if you try to come to Australia by boat you’ll not be settled in Australia.”
Hundreds have drowned making the journey—as recently as last week a boat sank, killing four people.
In a bid to smash the lucrative people-smuggling networks, Australia on Sunday also announced it would pay rewards of up to Aus$200,000 ($180,000) for information leading to their conviction.