Australian rescuers are searching for about 90 asylum seekers missing in Indonesian waters after their boat sank, at least the fourth fatal incident since 2010.
“The objective is to save as many lives as possible,” Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said in a press conference broadcast by Sky TV today. Of the 200 all-male passengers on board, three bodies have been found and 110 people rescued and taken to Christmas Island off Australia, he said.
The so-called boat people issue is hurting Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Labor government, which is in a political stalemate with Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National opposition over where to base offshore refugee processing centers. Refugees seeking asylum, usually from the Middle East, often pay illegal people smugglers in Indonesia thousands of dollars to ferry them in overcrowded boats to Australia.
“Voters have become tired of the boat-people issue and just want the government to sort it out,” said Nick Economou, a political analyst at Monash University in Melbourne. “Both parties have shown they can’t really deal with the matter.”
Navy boats, aircraft and merchant vessels are assisting with rescue efforts, Clare said. The boat was about 110 nautical miles northwest of Christmas Island when it capsized, he said.
“We do face considerable loss of life at sea,” Gillard said in Rio de Janero, where she is attending the United Nations Rio+20 summit on sustainability. “It is still possible for people to have survived and still be in the water.”
Gillard in October failed to pass a law to create offshore refugee processing centers due to opposition in parliament, where her minority government holds power in the lower house by one seat. Boats typically set out for Christmas Island, which lies about 2,600 kilometers (1,616 miles) northwest of Perth, the capital of Western Australia state.
“It shows what a horrible business this whole people smuggling racket is,” opposition leader Abbott said in an interview with Channel 9 today. “Obviously it’s important we stop it one way or another, but as I said I don’t think today is a day for politics.”
On Dec. 17, an overloaded vessel carrying asylum seekers to Australia sank in stormy weather off East Java province, killing at least 38 people. Less than a week later, at least 10 people died when a vessel sank near the Maluku islands east of Java.
A year before, footage of a wooden boat crammed with about 90 people was broadcast on Australian television networks showing the vessel crashing in heavy seas against the cliffs of Christmas Island, killing as many as 50 people.
Gillard was forced to abandon a plan to handle refugees outside the country when it was opposed by opposition lawmakers.
Under an agreement with Malaysia, Australia was planning to send 800 asylum seekers to the Southeast Asian nation and accept 4,000 people from that country who have been verified as legitimate refugees by the United Nations. Australia’s High Court declared her initial deal with Malaysia to process the migrants illegal on Aug. 31.
Gillard’s Labor party trails the opposition by 22 percentage points in the most recent nationwide poll, which was taken May 31-June 2 by Nielsen and had a margin of error of 2.6 percent.