Four people drowned after a boat carrying suspected asylum seekers capsized off Australia, the second fatal incident in a week as the government seeks to ease voter discontent over the flow of refugees ahead of elections.
Four bodies were recovered and 144 survivors were picked up by navy ships that were escorting the boat to Christmas Island, an Australian territory used as an immigration detention center, the Customs and Border Protection Service said in a statement yesterday. An infant boy drowned July 12 in a similar incident north of Christmas Island in which 88 people were rescued.
The failure to cut the number of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by sea has eroded support for the governing Labor party, with opposition leader Tony Abbott pledging to “stop the boats.” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who last month ousted Julia Gillard, has made tackling the issue a priority before elections that must be held by the end of November.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said an aircraft was monitoring a boat with about 80 people on board northeast of Christmas Island after receiving a distress call earlier today. A merchant vessel is on its way to assist, the authority said in an e-mailed statement.
More than 800 people, many from war-torn countries that have used Indonesia as a stepping stone to seek asylum in Australia, have died en route since October 2009, according to the Department of Immigration.
Rudd traveled to Jakarta this month and secured Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s support to host a meeting of officials from asylum seekers’ home countries, including Afghanistan, Iran and Myanmar.
The conference may be held around Aug. 20, Teuku Faizasyah, a presidential spokesman, told reporters in Jakarta yesterday.
Successive governments have struggled with limiting boat arrivals. Then-leader Gillard last year reopened processing centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, a return to former Prime Minister John Howard’s policy of holding applicants in offshore processing camps or remote onshore detention centers.
“The only way to stop the deaths is to stop the boats,” Abbott told reporters today. The opposition leader has said the coalition’s policy, should it win office, would include towing vessels out of Australian waters. Rudd has said such a policy risks creating conflict with Indonesia.
“This tow back policy, aired at a time of political campaign, must be studied carefully,” Faizasyah said yesterday. “In principle, something that’s dangerous to humans we cannot support.”
“Every policy taken by a neighbor must take into account the root cause of the problem,” he added. “If a policy is then applied unilaterally and causes damage to another country, certainly that’s not wise.”