Asylum seekers in Australia-bound boat perish off Indonesia

157 rescued from vessel heading for Australia just days after tough refugee law took effect

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 July, 2013, 11:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 3:16am

Asylum seekers aboard an ill-fated Australia-bound vessel that sank in Indonesian waters swam for their lives in pitch darkness in an incident that left at least seven dead and dozens missing.

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 believed to be carrying as many as 250 people, 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. Before the new policy announced on Friday, new arrivals were already being taken to PNG or Nauru for processing of their asylum claims.

A group of 38, including women and children, had swum for their lives for two to three hours in high seas to reach the shore Tuesday night. Others were plucked from the sea by fishermen and rescuers.

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.

"We have to do proper checks, but they say they're from Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka," he said.

We have to do proper checks, but they say they're from Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka

The boat people had set off from southwestern Java before the boat sank. It was headed for Australia's Christmas Island when it began taking on water, 42-year-old Sri Lankan survivor Obijet Roy said.

"Water from bottom of the ship is going up and then the passengers panic," said Roy, in broken English. Some asylum seekers were wearing life vests, while others were clinging to pieces of wood when the boat sunk.

According to Roy, 250 asylum seekers, mostly Sri Lankans, had travelled to Cianjur from a shelter in Bogor city on six buses to take the treacherous journey.

Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper quoted a man named Soheil as saying he was the only survivor of a group of 61 Iranians he was travelling with.

He said the captain - whom he said was a Sri Lankan man using a Malaysian crew - abandoned them when trouble struck.