Hope dwindled for survivors of a refugee boat wreck off Australia yesterday which killed at least 28 people, including seven children, renewing debate on the plight of boat people travelling from Asia.
The wooden craft, crowded with up to 100 Iraqi, Kurdish and Iranian asylum seekers and their children, hit rocks at remote Christmas Island on Wednesday and was shattered by huge waves as residents watched in horror.
Traumatized survivors pulled from the sea after the disaster huddled in a hospital and reception center yesterday, with the most seriously injured flown to Perth as hope faded of finding their fellow passengers alive in wild seas.
“We have got to prepare ourselves for the likelihood that more bodies will be found and there has been further loss of life than we know now,” warned Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who cut short her holiday to respond to the emergency.
Cyclonic conditions hampered search and rescue efforts which resumed at first light, but yielded no further bodies or survivors by late yesterday, customs officials said.
Australian Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor said 28 bodies had been recovered, including four infants, three children and nine women, underscoring “the tragedy that’s occurred here.”
Among the 42 survivors were eight children, one unaccompanied minor and three Indonesian crew, he added. Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen earlier said there had been between 70 and 100 people on board the leaky fishing boat, according to survivors, adding that the exact number of dead would “probably never” be known.
Medical personnel believe as many as 50 people may have perished on the jagged limestone outcrop, some 2,600km from Australia’s mainland.
“Yesterday we saw a truly horrific event, a terrible human tragedy on what is a very dangerous coastline at Christmas Island,” Gillard said. “I know the nation is shocked by what we have seen.”
Gillard was forced to defend border police as questions mounted about how the boat managed to cross the most closely-watched people-smuggling corridor between Indonesia and Australia without being intercepted.
The prime minister said the boat had approached the island in predawn darkness and “extreme weather conditions” meant it was not detected “until seen from Christmas Island itself.”
“In very rough and dangerous seas there is a limit to what can be achieved through radar and other surveillance mechanisms,” Gillard said, adding there would be a criminal investigation as well as a coroner’s probe.
Officials could not comment on the vessel’s origin and said it was not being tracked because it was made of wood and was hard to detect.
Local police said they had received an emergency call from someone claiming to be on a boat with about 80 people — believed to be the stricken vessel — about 20 minutes after it was first sighted as it drifted after losing power.
Residents said they were woken at dawn on Wednesday by the screams of victims, gathering life jackets and rushing to the cliffs to offer help, but were helpless as strong winds blew the flotation devices back onshore.
They watched in horror as the victims were crushed against limestone rocks, despite the efforts of navy rescuers to reach them in towering swells.