24 Jul 2013

Australia-bound asylum boat sinks

8:59 pm on 24 July 2013

At least five people have died after a boat carrying asylum-seekers bound for Australia sank, amid ongoing debate over the country's new policy. The boat went down off the Indonesian island of Java, the transit point for people-smugglers.

Indonesian officials said on Wednesday that at least 157 people have been rescued after their boat sank in bad weather. But at least five have drowned, including two children, and many more are feared missing. Rescue workers are continuing to search for more survivors.

The latest sinking happened on Tuesday night and involved passengers who said they were from Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka and Syria.

Meanwhile, another boat carrying 40 people has been intercepted west of Christmas Island by an Australian navy ship.

Many asylum-seekers seek to journey to Christmas Island, which is the closest part of Australia to Indonesia and lies 1600 miles north-west of mainland Australia, the BBC reports.

Last week, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a new asylum policy, ahead of polls expected to be announced soon.

Under the policy, asylum-seekers arriving by boat in Australia will be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing, and those whose refugee claims are upheld will be settled in PNG, rather than Australia.

Australia has experienced a sharp increase in the number of asylum-seekers arriving by boat in recent months. But critics have accused Australia of avoiding responsibility and passing on its problem to a developing nation.

Mr Rudd said on Wednesday that the sinking underlined the need for a policy shift, saying the government had to send "a very clear message to people-smugglers to stop sending people by boat to Australia".

"We are seeing too many drownings, we are seeing too many sinkings, too many innocent people being lost at sea."

Immigration Minister Tony Burke said he would consider the government's asylum-seeker policy a success when the drownings stopped. "We've got people drowning in the Indian Ocean and I want it to stop," he said.

PNG is to receive Australian investment as part of the deal. But some politicians there say the agreement could cause tensions on the island.

Opposition spokesman Tobias Kulang said PNG had "become a dumping ground for Australia's inadequacies". "This is an appalling performance by Australia, which with its monetary wealth is able to pass the buck on to poorer countries."