Ships and aircraft were searching yesterday for scores of men missing after a steel-hull fishing boat carrying approximately 200 suspected asylum seekers bound for Australia capsized in heavy seas south of Indonesia.
Four Indonesian and Australian warships, four merchant ships and five Australian government aircraft had joined the search in 2m high swells, Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman Jo Meehan said. About 90 people, all male, were missing since Thursday’s accident.
An Australian navy patrol boat and three cargo ships had rescued 110 survivors — including a 13-year-old boy — by late Thursday and delivered them to the Australian territory of Christmas Island, 200km to the south, early yesterday, Meehan said. Three bodies were also recovered.
“The vast majority of the survivors are healthy and won’t need medical attention,” Meehan said.
It was not clear where the passengers were from, but most asylum seekers trying to reach Australia are fleeing violence and poverty in nations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka.
Australian Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said while the seas were rough, people could have survived if they had life jackets or were clinging to debris, as most of the rescued survivors had done.
“There is the prospect that there are people out there still alive,” he said.
He said about 40 survivors had been found clinging to the upturned hull on Thursday afternoon, while others were discovered clinging to debris up to 6km from the scene.
Clare said the boat had initially called Australian rescue authorities late on Tuesday to report being “in distress,” but gave no location. The crew called back early on Wednesday and reported the boat’s position 70km south of the main Indonesian island of Java. Australian authorities advised the crew to return to Indonesia and reported their situation to their Indonesian counterparts, who had rescue responsibility for the area, he said.
An Australian surveillance plane crew spotted the boat on Wednesday afternoon continuing south toward Christmas Island and showing “no visual signs of distress,” Clare said.
“Nevertheless, Christmas Island Border Protection Command began to preposition vessels to respond if an urgent request for assistance was requested,” he said.
A surveillance plane crew found the boat capsized on Thursday afternoon halfway between Christmas Island and Java, still within Indonesia’s zone of search and rescue responsibility.
He said the boat had made several calls on Thursday morning that “raised concerns about the safety of the vessel,” but he did not have details of those calls.
Speaking of Australian rescue authorities’ response, Clare said that “it looks like they took proactive steps.”
“All of the advice I have is that the work between Australian agencies and Indonesian agencies was very good,” he added.
Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean, is closer to Indonesia than to the Australian mainland. It is a popular target for a growing number of asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia on overcrowded fishing boats from Indonesia — sometimes with deadly consequences.
Western Australian police were being sent to Christmas Island to attempt to identify bodies.
Gagah Prakoso, a spokesman for Indonesia’s Search and Rescue Agency, said the capsized boat was reportedly carrying 206 people.