Rescuers plucked 125 people from the ocean yesterday after an asylum-seeker boat sank en route to Australia, barely a week after another vessel went down in the same area, killing up to 90.
The rickety ship capsized 107 nautical miles (198km) north of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said, adding that one person was confirmed dead so far.
In a late afternoon update, AMSA said there were up to 150 people on board, including women and children, contradicting Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who told parliament there were between 123 and 133 people on the boat.
Gillard gave her report as the heat was turned up on Australian politicians to break their deadlock on how to deal with the arrival of asylum seekers.
The incident comes just days after another boat with about 200 people on board went down in the Indian Ocean as it made its way to Australia. Rescuers managed to save 110 people and 17 bodies were recovered, but no other survivors were found.
Three merchant vessels, including the MV Bison Express, a Philippines-flagged livestock carrier, were on the scene of yesterday’s disaster, which happened in Indonesian waters.
The vessels “responded to the AMSA call for assistance and have rescued 125 people. Current reports are that one deceased person has been recovered,” Australian Customs and Border Protection and AMSA said in a statement.
AMSA said two Australian navy ships and a spotter aircraft were also helping with the rescue effort in conditions described as “fair, not ideal.”
In a statement, Australian customs said police received a satellite phone call early yesterday from the vessel and “initiated an immediate response.”
Details were passed to the Indonesian rescue authority Basarnas, which said it understood the generator was broken and the boat was taking on water.
A photo posted on the AMSA Web site showed a small, basic-looking boat crowded with people on its decks, taken by the MV Bison, before it capsized.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp said most of the passengers were believed to be Afghans, though this could not be confirmed.
The accident is the latest in a series of refugee boat disasters in recent years, as unseaworthy, overloaded vessels packed with desperate migrants struggle to reach Australia.
Though they come in relatively small numbers by global standards, asylum seekers are a sensitive political issue in Australia.
Both sides of Australian politics support offshore processing, but differ on where it should be conducted.
Canberra clinched a deal last year to send 800 boatpeople to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 of that country’s registered refugees in a bid to deter people-smugglers from the dangerous voyage to Australia.
However, Gillard’s fragile coalition government was unable to pass the required legislation through parliament without the support of the opposition, amid concerns Malaysia was not a signatory to UN refugee conventions.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott, who supports processing on the island of Nauru and turning boats back when possible, yesterday again ruled out the Malaysian solution.
In response, Gillard pushed for a private members bill by independent MP Rob Oakeshott that would allow an immigration minister to designate any nation as an “offshore assessment country” if it was party to the Bali Process.