Asylum seekers drown as boat capsizes off Java; Customs ship to offload separate rescued group
Updated 20 minutes ago
As many as 50 people are feared dead after a boat loaded with asylum seekers sank off the south coast of west Java.
Indonesian rescue authorities, speaking on the basis of information provided by local police, say 22 bodies and 25 survivors have been found.
As many as 30 are still feared missing and without the capability to search at night, or in big seas, there was little hope of them being found before day break.
Rescue operations were then hindered this morning due to big seas.
The boat sank in big waves off Argabinta, a remote area of coast off the Cianjur region of west Java.
The survivors were taken to a local Islamic school, or pesantren, for shelter but it is expected they will be moved to an immigration detention facility today.
The dead bodies were to be taken to a local health centre but it is too small to house them.
The tragedy comes as a diplomatic row continues to simmer over Australia’s plans to turn back asylum boats.
Meanwhile, Australian authorities are set to return a second group of asylum seekers to Indonesia today after rescuing them at sea.
The Australian Customs ship, ACV Triton, had been given permission to enter Indonesian waters to offload 31 rescued asylum seekers.
It will be the second time in two days that Australian rescue authorities have returned asylum seekers to Indonesia.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) told its Indonesian equivalent Basarnas the “preference is for a transfer at sea” to Indonesian authorities.
Navy hands group to Indonesian rescue crew
The earlier group of 44 asylum seekers and two crew members were on a boat which issued a distress call 40 nautical miles off Java on Thursday morning.
Suyatno, the head of operations at the Jakarta office of Indonesia’s rescue agency Basarnas, says his agency did not have the capability to reach the boat.
The Australian Navy intercepted the vessel and then advised Basarnas that it would drop the asylum seekers off.
In the early hours of Friday morning an Indonesian rescue crew met a Navy ship off the coast of Java and the asylum seekers were handed over.
It is understood the handover took place just outside the 12 nautical mile limit of Indonesian territorial waters.
Suyatno says he does not know why Australia did not take the asylum seekers to Christmas Island.
One of the boat’s crew members, Azam, says the boat was not broken, despite passengers calling Australia to be rescued.
He says the Navy set fire to the boat at sea.
‘Deafening silence’ from Australian government
Federal Finance Minister Mathias Cormann says the latest asylum seeker boat tragedy off Indonesia highlights the need to stop boats trying to reach Australia.
Senator Cormann told Sky News that it was always distressing when people died at sea and that the Coalition is working with Indonesia to stop that happening.
“Now we do have operation sovereign borders underway, we are working very constructively with the Indonesian government and it’s very important our efforts with the Indonesian government are going to be successful,” he said.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott heads to Jakarta on Monday in what will be his first overseas trip since the election, but Mr Cormann says asylum seeker policy should not be the defining issue in the relationship.
“I’m confident that while this is one issue that, of course, we have to continue to deal with constructively, that all of the other very important parts of the relationship – in particular our trade relationship – will be appropriately high profile,” he said
Earlier today, the ABC’s political reporter in Canberra, Andrew Green, said the news of the drowning and of a second attempt to return asylum seekers to Indonesia had been met with a “deafening silence” from the Australian Government and participating agencies.
The Government, whether it be the Prime Minister, the Immigration Minister or the Home Affairs Minister or the Defence Minister, somebody should be providing a briefing to the Australian people today.Acting Opposition leader Chris Bowen
The Government was seen to be sticking by its policy of not commenting on the operational details of any intercepts at sea under Operation Sovereign Borders.
The next opportunity to question the Immigration Minister and his Commander will be at their scheduled briefing on Monday, frustrating efforts to accurately report on any operations by the Australian Navy off Java, Mr Green says.
“There has been deafening silence from the major agencies as well as the immigration office,” he said.
“All the agencies involved, Customs and immigration have been asked to refer all questions to the Immigration Minister’s office.
“But (Immigration Minister) Scott Morrison is on his way back from Papua New Guinea, and his office has been unavailable for comment.
“At this stage it is frustrating to get any kind of information about Australian involvement.”
The acting Opposition leader, Chris Bowen, says the Government needs to inform the public about the latest asylum seeker rescues at sea.
“The Government, whether it be the Prime Minister, the Immigration Minister or the Home Affairs Minister or the Defence Minister, somebody should be providing a briefing to the Australian people today,” he said.
“This can’t wait for Mr Morrison’s weekly briefing, these updates should be provided as and when the Government can.”
Meanwhile, the ABC has learned that the three-star general in charge of operation borders had taken temporary leave and that Defence Force vice chief, Air Marshal Mark Binskin, has stepped in temporarily to oversee Operation Sovereign Borders.
Operations hint at new tougher approach under Tony Abbott
Interceptions of this kind, where Australian authorities hand asylum seekers back to Indonesian authorities after being asked to assist in their rescue, only happened once during the six years of the last Labor government.
On all other occasions when asylum seekers have been intercepted by Australian authorities, they have been taken to Christmas Island.
The ABC’s Parliament House bureau chief Greg Jennett said yesterday that while the first rescue did not strictly qualify as a boat “turnback”, it hinted at a new and tougher approach by Australia.
He says it could also establish a precedent with Indonesia whereby any call for Australian help with rescues or intercepts comes with a condition that the passengers will be handed back.
But the public may never know if such protocols exist.