SYDNEY - More than 120 people have been rescued after a boat carrying asylum-seekers sank en route to Australia. The sinking occurred less than a week after another vessel capsized north of Australia’s Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island, with the loss of dozens of lives. An Australian warship and two merchant ships have been plucking survivors out of the water. The Australian air force has also dropped life rafts as the authorities responded to a distress call from a boat 200 kilometers north of Christmas Island.
It is thought most of the passengers are asylum seekers from Afghanistan, many of whom are women and children.
It is the latest in a series of maritime emergencies as overloaded, rickety boats captained by inexperienced sailors and packed with asylum seekers try to reach Australia. Last week about 90 people died when their vessel capsized south of the Indonesian island of Java.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard says most of those onboard have been accounted for and the country’s rescue services have responded swiftly and courageously.
“Australia has been called on once again to lead a very major search and rescue operation," she said. "Once again Australian men and women have raced to help. They have gone to the rescue zone. Once again we acknowledge their courage in doing so. Madam deputy speaker, in view of these events and in view of the events of last week, I want to say to the parliament now most sincerely that I believe the time for the party divide on this issue is at an end. We have seen too much tragedy.”
Most asylum boats sailing into Australia’s northern waters originate in Indonesia, although there has been an increase in attempts from Sri Lanka.
Although they come in relatively small numbers by international standards, asylum-seekers are a sensitive political issue in Australia, where the major political parties remain deadlocked on how to deal with them.
Both sides of Australian politics support offshore processing of asylum-seekers, but differ on where it should be conducted.
Canberra agreed last year to send 800 boat people to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 certified refugees, in an effort to deter people-smugglers from the dangerous voyage to Australia.
But Gillard's fragile minority government has been unable to pass the required legislation through parliament without the support of the conservative opposition, which favors the use of an offshore refugee camp on the Pacific island, Nauru.
Australia grants refugee visas to 13,000 people annually under various international humanitarian agreements.