Australia on Sunday called the sinking of an asylum-seeker boat off Indonesia that left more than 200 missing “a terrible tragedy”, as activists said Canberra’s refugee laws were partly responsible.
Indonesian officials said the overloaded vessel bound for Australia’s remote Christmas Island was carrying around 250 Iranians and Afghans when it sank off Java on Saturday.
Only 33 people have so far been rescued with efforts to reach any survivors hampered by bad weather and heavy seas.
“This is a terrible tragedy,” Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said, adding that Australia had offered an Orion surveillance aircraft to help the rescue effort.
“Our focus today is on the search and rescue effort and our thoughts today are with the people who died and with the families of those still lost at sea.”
He said Indonesian authorities had advised Australian officials in Jakarta about the capsize on Saturday evening and Canberra was alerted Sunday morning.
“Australian authorities have been working with Indonesian authorities since then,” he said, refusing to comment on whether Canberra had intelligence about the boat before it set off.
“Whenever people make a dangerous journey and risk their lives, I am concerned,” Clare added.
Thousands of asylum-seekers head through Southeast Asian countries to try to reach Australia every year and many link up with people-smugglers in Indonesia for the dangerous sea voyage.
Canberra had intended to deter them by sending up to 800 asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by boat to Malaysia, in return for accepting 4,000 of Kuala Lumpur’s registered refugees.
But the proposal was scotched in August by the High Court which placed all offshore processing in doubt, and the conservative opposition has so far effectively blocked new legislation to allow it.
Ian Rintoul, coordinator of the Refugee Action Coalition, said any sympathy the government or opposition expressed for those who died would amount to “hypocrisy” until the parties adopted humane policies.
“If the government and opposition really had a concern for asylum-seekers’ lives they would institute the humane refugee policy Australia has needed for so long,” he said.
“They’d massively increase our refugee intake from the region, they’d end mandatory detention, decriminalize people-smuggling, remove offshore processing as a policy option, and process and resettle refugees from Indonesia.”
Clare refused to respond, saying “today is not the day for politics, people have died”.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the overloading of the boat was a major worry and “confirms the trend we have seen this year of the people-smugglers putting more and more people onto every boat”.
The disaster comes a year after a shipwreck at Christmas Island, a far-flung Australian territory that the migrants’ boats frequently head for, in which close to 50 asylum-seekers are believed to have died.
Canberra often cites that incident as a reason to deter refugees from attempting the perilous journey from Indonesia.
But since the plan for offshore processing fell through, the number of boat people arriving in Australia has ballooned, with at least nine ships intercepted in Australian waters so far this month.