Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said 123 people have been rescued after a boat carrying suspected asylum seekers capsized in Indonesian waters and called on parliament to legislate against people smuggling.
The boat was carrying as many as 133 people and a major search and rescue operation involving Australian navy vessels and aircraft is underway, she told parliament.
“We have seen too much tragedy,” Gillard told lawmakers in the capital, Canberra. “I believe the time for the party divide on this issue is at an end.”
There have been at least four fatal incidents since 2010, most recently last week, as refugees pay people smugglers in Indonesia thousands of dollars to ferry them in overcrowded boats to Australia. The so-called boat people issue is hurting Gillard, whose Labor government is in a political stalemate with Tony Abbott’s opposition over where to base offshore refugee processing centers.
A group of backbench lawmakers, including independent members of parliament that support the minority government, are pressuring Gillard and Abbott to reach a compromise and devise a policy that will discourage people smuggling.
Gillard called on the House of Representatives to immediately consider and approve legislation proposed by independent lawmaker Rob Oakeshott on the issue.
Oakeshott’s bill proposes processing of refugees on Australian soil and in centers in countries such as Malaysia and Nauru, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Maritime officials are coordinating the rescue effort after receiving a distress call at about 6 a.m. Sydney time today from a boat that capsized about 200 kilometers (124 miles) north of Christmas Island, Jo Meehan, a spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, said earlier by telephone.
About 90 people may have died after a similar incident on June 21 also near Christmas Island, an Australian territory about 2,600 kilometers northwest of Perth that is used as an immigration detention center.