Fears grow for 30 as asylum boat vanishes near Australia

Asylum seekers

Less than a week after about 55 asylum-seekers perished at sea, a second major air and sea search is under way for a boatload of up to 30 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers missing for seven days near Australia.

The Australian has been told “serious concerns” are held for the boat, which was first spotted west of the Cocos and Keeling Islands last Wednesday.

News of this latest emergency came as a member of the government’s expert panel on asylum-seekers, Paris Aristotle, said more deaths at sea were inevitable for as long as parliament delayed implementing the panel’s 22 recommendations. “That is not the responsibility just of the government, it’s the responsibility of the whole of the parliament to compromise,” Mr Aristotle said.

“The opposition and the Greens should give the government the capacity to implement all the recommendations in full.”

He declined to say whether he thought the tough suite of measures proposed by the Coalition would suffice to stop the boats. But he said regardless of the election outcome, “the government of the time will still need a package of this type if it has any hope of better managing this issue”.

Last night, a Customs P3 Orion and a Dornier aircraft supplied by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority were scanning the seas 250 nautical miles north of Cocos Island in search of the missing vessel. AMSA has also put out an alert asking merchant vessels in the area to assist in the search.

News of the search, which as of yesterday was the top priority for Customs, casts new light on the agency’s controversial decision not to retrieve the bodies of those lost in last week’s shipwreck.

Yesterday, Julia Gillard defended Customs for not going back for the 13 bodies observed floating in the water.

The Prime Minister said Border Protection Command made a “very tough” but operationally sound decision to abandon the retrieval of bodies when its resources were too stretched with a spate of rescue operations.

“As border command has made clear, they always put the highest priority on saving lives and I think we would all understand why that’s got to come first in any tasking or any work that border command does,” she said.

As Ms Gillard stressed the latest high-seas tragedy sent a clear message to potential asylum-seekers not to risk their lives on boats, Tony Abbott was also forced to defend his party’s controversial policy of towing unseaworthy boats back to Indonesia.

After his frontbench colleague Malcolm Turnbull raised concerns that the Coalition’s policy would not be safe if Indonesia resisted the return of asylum-seeker boats, Mr Abbott insisted it could be done effectively.

“I see no reason why a future Coalition government can’t have the same strong and constructive relationship with Indonesia that the Howard government had and that’s what I will be working towards from day one,” the Opposition Leader said.

Sri Lanka’s high commissioner Thisara Samarasinghe, a former navy chief, said the Sri Lankan and Australian governments had succeeded in substantially reducing the number of asylum-seekers boarding boats to Australia. Mr Samarasinghe said between January 1 and the end of last month, the Sri Lankan navy had intercepted and returned 28 boats carrying about 480 Sri Lankans, including 80 women and more than 100 children.

The number of Sri Lankans to travel to Australia by boat so far this year has dropped to 1644, down substantially from the 6428 Sri Lankan arrivals last year, The Australian reports. (Courtesy: Ada Derana)