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Up to 200 feared drowned in asylum tragedy
by Staff Writers
Jakarta (UPI) Dec 19, 2011

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Strong winds and high seas hampered rescuers off Java where the season for survivors from an asylum boat that overturned in bad weather continued.

Around 200 people, including dozens of children, were missing after the overcrowded wooden ship carrying up to 400 asylum seekers wrecked about 25 miles off the coast, the Indonesian state news agency Antara reported.

"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 Antara.

"It is somewhat difficult to go on with the search because extreme weather has caused reduced visibility."

The passengers, mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, reportedly paid $2,500-$5,000 to people-smugglers for illegal passage to Australia where they would claim asylum.

One survivor said fishermen found him and other passengers clinging to the vessel, which foundered in waters off the southeast coast of Java, one of the archipelago nation's largest islands.

The ship's seaworthiness was reportedly in question even before the weather turned against them.

"That made the boat even more unstable and eventually it sank," he said.

Vessels from the National Disaster Mitigation Agency rescued 33 people soon after the alert sounded, said agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.

"We are temporarily sheltering the survivors in the fishing port building at Prigi Port," he said.

Waves of more than 12 feet were making the search difficult.

Maritime police spokesman Lt. Alwi Mudzakird blamed the accident on overloading, saying the vessel may have had twice the number of people on board as was safe.

Those who were rescued told authorities that they had intended to seek asylum in Australia, he said.

Survivors said they started their journey at near Jakarta where the organizers promised to get them to Christmas Island, the Australian Indian Ocean territory.

"According to them, they had flown from Dubai to Jakarta and took buses to an unidentified location in Java to board the boat. They said they were heading to Christmas Island," Indonesian rescue official Kelik Purwanto said.

"They had been out at sea for 23 to 25 hours. They might have washed up on nearby islands, so we must try to rescue them as soon as possible," he said.

Christmas Island is where Australia holds many thousands of illegal boat people who are trying to reach the mainland. The island is around 1,600 miles from the western Australian city of Perth but only 220 miles south of Jakarta.

In Australia, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare, who last week moved from a defense portfolio, said the tragedy should make asylum seekers think twice before attempting the crossing to Christmas Island.

Clare came under pressure from asylum policy critics who claim Australia isn't being tough enough on illegal immigrants, a report in The Age newspaper said. They claim the Labor government's continuation of onshore illegal refugee processing and the release of asylum seekers into the community is encouraging people to make the perilous sea journey.

"Today is not the day for politics" Clare said.

"I am not going to go into the politics of this. People have died. A boat has capsized off the coast of Indonesia and there are search and rescue efforts looking for people who are potentially still alive out at sea. There will be plenty of time to talk about the politics of this issue in the days ahead."

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Up to 200 feared drowned in asylum tragedy


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