Two people died, including a young child, and two were seriously ill after an asylum-seeker boat capsized off Australia yesterday, but more than 90 were plucked to safety and taken ashore.
The overloaded Indonesian fishing boat was spotted afloat by Australian customs 14 nautical miles (26km) north of the Australian territory of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.
Two customs officials from the Ocean Protector boarded the vessel, but it was immediately pounded by two large waves that rolled it and sent people flying into the water, Australian Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said.
“The men and women aboard [Ocean Protector] acted quickly to rescue those who went into the water and 95 have been recovered, but that includes two people who are deceased,” Clare said. “The two custom officers were recovered and are safe and uninjured.”
The dead included a boy aged four to five and a woman in her 30s. Two others were seriously ill after swallowing sea water or diesel fuel — one of them a six-to-seven-year-old boy and the other a pregnant woman in her 20s.
“Initial advice is that border command believe they have rescued everyone on board the vessel, but it is important to continue the search just in case there is anyone else there,” Clare added.
Most of those rescued are believed to be Afghan, but officials said Middle Eastern nationalities were on board, as well as three Indonesians who were likely crew.
They were transferred to an immigration facility on Christmas Island to undergo health, security and identity checks.
Christmas Island administrator Jon Stanhope told the Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) it was fortunate that the Ocean Protector was close to the boat when it went down and was able to respond quickly.
“I think it’s a very fortunate coincidence that customs were within the vicinity and were able to respond very quickly,” Stanhope said.
Australia is facing a steady influx of asylum-seekers arriving by boat, many of who use Indonesia as a transit hub, paying people-smugglers for passage on leaky wooden vessels after fleeing their home countries.
Hundreds have died making the treacherous journey over the past few years.
Earlier this month, a naval vessel plucked 77 asylum-seekers to safety after their boat broke up on the way to Australia.
While there has been a lull in boat arrivals in recent months due to heavy swells and poor weather, the numbers arriving are starting to spike again.
At least four boats were taken to Christmas Island over the weekend, Stanhope said, with one of them carrying 128 people.
To deter people from making the dangerous journey, the Australian government last year launched a harsh new offshore processing policy, with many boatpeople being taken to camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea in the Pacific.
However, it has been criticized by rights advocates, with Amnesty describing conditions as “appalling,” while the UN has warned the asylum-seekers’ detention was arbitrary.
Australia last year dealt with a record 17,202 asylum-seekers arriving by sea.
With the boats continuing to arrive, the conservative opposition has declared the policy a failure and said the government had lost control of Australia’s borders.