A boat carrying at least 200 asylum-seekers capsized in Indonesian waters some 120 nautical miles north of Australia's remote Christmas Island, the Australia Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said onThursday.
AMSA said survivors had been spotted in the water by a surveillance aircraft, and three merchant vessels and two Australian patrol boats were directed to rush to the area to help any possible survivors.
Incidentally, three other boats with about 238 people on board have been intercepted near Christmas Island over the past 24 hours. It is estimated that more than 100 boats have brought over 5,000 asylum-seekers to Down Under since January last year.
In December 2010, at least 50 asylum-seekers died after their boat crashed into razor-sharp limestone rocks below a cliff on Christmas Island, which is actually closer to Indonesia than Australia. The island is about 750 miles north-west of the Australian mainland and some 190 miles south of Indonesia.
Australia has an immigration detention center on the island where all asylum-seekers arriving by boat are taken. Currently, more than 2,500 people are waiting at the island's processing center for officials to rule on their cases.
Under the existing laws, asylum-seekers are held on Christmas Island until an ombudsman expedite their cases with six-monthly case reviews. Taking into account the overcrowding caused at the island's detention center in recent months, authorities have opened new immigration detention centers in mainland Australia.
Australia has become a coveted destination for desperate people from impoverished and war-torn countries seeking a new life. Many of them attempt to enter the country by making a perilous 230-mile voyage from Indonesia in rickety fishing boats, which are often operated by human-traffickers. Australia has seen recently a spurt in people from countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka attempting to reach its shores in decrepit fishing boats.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard had earlier attempted to address the issue by reaching a refugee swap deal with Malaysia that would have allowed Australia to send 800 asylum-seekers to that country in exchange for accepting 4,000 confirmed refugees from the Asian country over the next four years.
But Gillard was forced to drop the proposal after the country's High Court ruled that her plans to send asylum seekers to camps set up in other countries were unlawful, stating that the arrangement does not provide any guarantees that the rights of the asylum-seekers sent to those countries would be protected.
by RTT Staff Writer
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