More than 100 people have been rescued after a boat carrying about 200 asylum seekers capsized off the coast of Indonesia on Thursday, officials in Australia said on early Friday. Around 90 people are still believed to be missing.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said the ill-fated vessel capsized approximately 109 nautical miles (201 kilometers) south of Java, which is within waters where the Indonesian government is responsible for search-and-rescue operations. It happened about halfway to Christmas Island, which is part of Australia.
Australia's Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said it is believed approximately 200 people, all of them male, were on board the vessel. "At this stage, we have been able to rescue 110 survivors," he said. "Three deceased adult men have now been recovered. Some of the survivors have sustained injuries. The surviving passengers are now being transported to Christmas Island, where they'll continue to receive medical care."
Weather conditions are hampering the rescue work, but confusion between Australian and Indonesian authorities may have delayed the rescue work.
Clare said AMSA's Rescue Coordination Center began to receive calls from a vessel at around 10 p.m. local time on Tuesday evening. The vessel indicated it was experiencing difficulties, but no information was given about where the vessel was located. At around 1:30 a.m. local time on Wednesday, the vessel reported it was approximately 38 nautical miles (70 kilometers) south of the Indonesian mainland.
AMSA advised the vessel to return to Indonesia, which was closer than Christmas Island, but it is believed the vessel continued towards Australia despite experiencing difficulties.
"At approximately 3.15 p.m. on Wednesday, a Customs and Border Protection surveillance aircraft undergoing routine surveillance detected a vessel that was suspected of being the source of these distress calls," Clare said on Friday. "The vessel was travelling in a southerly direction, and there were no visual signs of distress reported."
Despite the Australian aircraft seeing no visual signs of distress, the crew of the vessel continued to make phone calls to AMSA throughout Wednesday and advised it was still experiencing difficulties. But it was not until Thursday morning that Australia's Border Protection Command received additional information that raised concerns about the safety of the vessel.
"The Border Protection Command patrol boats were moved north of Christmas Island in anticipation of a possible search and rescue response," Clare said during an early morning press conference. "A Customs and Border Protection Command surveillance flight departed Christmas Island just after 1 p.m. eastern standard time yesterday (Thursday) and was specifically tasked to locate the vessel."
At approximately 3 p.m. on Thursday, the Border Protection Command surveillance aircraft discovered the asylum seeker vessel had capsized halfway between Java and Christmas Island. "MSA issued a request for assistance to merchant vessels in the area, and offered its assistance to the Indonesian Search and Rescue Authority," Clare said. "The surveillance aircraft continued to monitor the situation."
About two hours later, at approximately 5 p.m. on Thursday, a RAAF P3 aircraft arrived at the scene and dropped a number of life rafts which were able to carry up to 40 people. "When the Dash 8 arrived on the scene yesterday afternoon we found about 40 people that were on top of the upturned hull and other people that were holding onto debris as much as three nautical miles (5.5 kilometers) away from the scene," the minister added.
A total of 110 people had been rescued as of Friday morning and authorities are hopeful more survivors could be found. "The advice I have is that the water temperature is 29 degrees Celsius (84.2 Fahrenheit), the sea state is sea state three, and that people can survive out there for up to 36 hours, if they have either life jackets or they have debris to hold onto," Clare said. "So we're in that critical window, where there's a chance where more lives could be saved, and that obviously is where my focus is right now."
Among those rescued was a 13-year-old boy, the only child believed to have been on board the vessel.
So far this year, the Australian Navy has intercepted 4,176 irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs), most of them coming from Afghanistan and Iran who use Indonesia as a transit region. As of March 31, a total of 4,197 people are being held in immigration facilities while 1,712 people have been approved for a residence determination to live in the community.
This month alone, authorities have caught at least 1,038 asylum seekers who attempted to reach Australia by boat, indicating a sharp increase in the number of new arrivals. A boat intercepted by the HMAS Wollongong near Christmas Island on Thursday morning was carrying 117 people alone, following the capture of two boats carrying more than 120 asylum seekers a day earlier.
Australia's Migration Act 1958 requires people who are not Australian citizens and who are unlawfully in Australia to be detained. This law has been heavily criticized by the United Nations and human rights organizations as many asylum seekers are in detention for months. In 2010, a total of 4,612 irregular maritime arrivals were intercepted by the Australian Navy.
However, the boat journeys made by asylum seekers are not without risk, as demonstrated by this weeks accident. In December 2010, at least 30 people were killed when a boat carrying more than 90 asylum seekers sank off the coast of Christmas Island. Forty-two people were rescued, while an unknown number of people remain missing.