Australia’s government yesterday renewed its call for a refugee swap deal with Malaysia after an asylum-seeker boat sank off remote Christmas Island leaving up to about 90 people dead or unaccounted for.
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 maritime voyage to Australia.
However, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s fragile coalition government was unable to pass the required legislation through parliament without the support of the opposition and asylum-seekers have continued to risk the voyage, mostly via Indonesia.
“Without the Malaysia solution you’ve got a cobbled together Indonesian solution that is wholly unsatisfactory, it’s not protecting the borders, it’s not saving lives,” Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
His comments came after Australia suspended the search for survivors from a people-smuggling boat that capsized in the Indian Ocean between Indonesia and Christmas Island four days ago.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said searches of the sea north of the island had failed to find any more survivors.
“Reports from the aerial and surface search crews confirm that no survivors remain in the extensive search area,” the AMSA said in a statement late on Saturday announcing the search had been called off.
Rescuers reached 110 people in the hours after the boat sank 109 nautical miles (202km) south of the Sunda Strait in Indonesia on Thursday, but despite an extensive search, no survivors have been recovered since.
While 17 bodies have been found, an exact death toll may never be known because there were no firm figures on how many had been on board the ship.
Customs officials believe there were about 200 people on board when the boat went down, bringing the total dead and unaccounted for to about 90.
“I think it really underscores why people should not set off on this incredibly dangerous passage,” Australian Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said as she urged opposition leader Tony Abbott to negotiate a compromise on the Malaysia deal.
“I don’t think we can keep seeing these sorts of human tragedies occurring,” she said.
The boat is believed to have originated in Sri Lanka and to have been carrying male mostly Afghan asylum-seekers. Authorities said nine of the survivors were under the age of 18, including a 13-year-old boy.
Authorities warn of the dangerous journey asylum-seekers face when they pay people-smugglers to take them to Australia, often on overcrowded, wooden boats.