A boat carrying scores of asylum seekers to Australia foundered yesterday, as regional ministers discussed the increasingly pressing issue in Indonesia ahead of Australian elections next month.
One hundred and six people were plucked to safety from the partially submerged boat, with just two suffering minor injuries, after the vessel ran into trouble off the Australia’s Christmas Island.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) did not say that everyone was accounted for, only that the rescue was continuing.
AMSA received a request for assistance from someone onboard the boat yesterday morning. A navy ship and a customs and border protection aircraft responded.
A merchant vessel also joined the rescue effort.
“The vessel was upright, but partially submerged. A number of people were sighted in the water,” an AMSA spokeswoman said.
“At 3:30pm HMAS Parramatta has reportedly recovered 106 people from the water,” she said.
Asylum seekers are a sensitive issue in Australia as their numbers increase, with more than 18,000 arriving so far this year, according to official figures.
It is a major issue at the forthcoming elections, and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party last month unveiled a hardline policy aimed at winning back political ground on the issue. Under the plan, boat people arriving in Australia will be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement, even if they are genuine refugees.
The latest incident came as Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Immigration Minister Tony Burke were in Jakarta for regional talks on people-smuggling.
They met ministers and senior officials from 12 other countries in a fresh bid to tackle the issue. Among those represented in are Afghanistan and Sri Lanka — the origin countries of many asylum seekers who arrive in Australia after perilous sea journeys.
However, no delegates from Iran attended the conference, a major blow to the talks as the Islamic Republic is the country of origin for most asylum seekers to Australia.
“We will address an issue that I know is of concern for all of us,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told delegates at the opening of the talks.
As the main transit hub for asylum seekers trying to reach Australia, Indonesia offered to host the one-day conference when Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono held talks with Rudd last month.
The Indonesian foreign ministry said the talks were expected to produce “concrete measures as well as a shared commitment among countries of origin, transit and destination.”
Rudd’s new boat people plan is an effort to win back ground from the conservative, Tony Abbott-led opposition, favorites to win the Sept. 7 polls.
Rudd’s plan has already succeeded in slowing the flow of asylum seeker boats — but it has provoked howls of outrage from rights groups and cracks are already starting to appear.
In a weekend interview with Fairfax newspapers, Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O’Neill indicated that the agreement was not open-ended — as had previously been suggested — and there was a limit to the number of boat people it could settle.
Abbott has also warned the ministers they cannot make any commitments at the talks as the government has been in “caretaker mode” since parliament was dissolved ahead of the elections.
During this time, a government must cease taking major policy decisions except on pressing matters, and only then in consultation with the opposition.
Abbott has pledged his own crackdown that would see all refugees put on three-year temporary visas and forced into a work-for-welfare program without family reunion, appeal or permanent residency rights.