HMAS Maitland, Navy patrol boat. Photo: Jamie Brown
JUST 55 people had been rescued by last night from a boatload of 150 or more asylum seekers that foundered only kilometres off the coast of Java on the way to Christmas Island.
Three survivors have serious injuries but were in a stable condition aboard the Australian navy ship HMAS Maitland. At least one of them is believed to have been bitten by a shark.
Earlier yesterday the Indonesian search and rescue authority Basarnas said survivors would be taken to the port of Merak.
The other passengers, including men, women and a number of children, who are understood to be Afghan Hazara refugees, were still missing with hope for their survival rapidly diminishing.
The latest tragedy came as Prime Minister Julia Gillard attended the Pacific Island Forum in Rarotonga, where Australia signed a memorandum for the new processing centre in Nauru. More defence personnel arrived on Nauru yesterday, taking the number to about 150, as the government rushes to get the centre operating to deter people getting on boats.
One of those aboard, a 17-year-old, Mahdi, known as John Cina, was making his second attempt after being rescued from a boat in April.
The wooden boat sank early on Wednesday morning, but the first survivors were not picked up until almost a day later – when the crew of a bulk cargo carrier, the APL Bahrain, heard their cries from the water.
A huge search was mounted for further survivors, involving HMAS Maitland, three merchant ships, three Australian aircraft and one Indonesian rescue craft.
The asylum boat had embarked on Tuesday from Indonesia despite the Gillard government’s new law under which its passengers would have been sent for several years of detention on either Manus Island or Nauru.
Sources said the boat was organised by a Pakistani people smuggler known as Haji Gholam, or Mamad, 25, who had been in the trade for about three years.
Recently, smugglers have increased the price for a passage, saying those who pay more will go first in an attempt to beat the new Australian laws.
Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said: ”They make as much as a million dollars out of every boat … and they’re lying to people. They’re telling people they’re selling them a ticket to Australia – what they’re really doing is selling them a ticket to Nauru, or a ticket to the bottom of the sea.”
The bulk carrier APL Bahrain diverted from its Malaysia-Fremantle course and retrieved the first six asylum seekers from the ocean. Captain Manuel Nistorescu said the rescued men were young and all said they were from Afghanistan. The men said they had been in the water since about 7am yesterday, (10am Melbourne time) and were finally pulled onto the carrier at 4.48am. They said their boat’s pump failed and the vessel began taking on water.
Questions were raised about Basarnas’s rescue effort after it abandoned the search on Wednesday afternoon, saying no evidence could be found.
The Age has also learnt that Basarnas cannot search at night, so almost six hours passed after it was informed of the original distress call before a search and rescue boat was dispatched.
Basarnas spokesman Gagah Prakoso said his agency had received word of the boat in distress at 1.31am Jakarta time on Wednesday. But it was not until 7.15am that two helicopters and two boats were sent to the area.
“We never conduct operations at night time because we don’t have the facilities and because bureaucratically speaking, it’s complicated,” Mr Prakoso said. “The helicopters are not equipped with devices designed for night-time flying. And in order to dispatch boats we normally must get a permit [from the harbour] but the harbour office doesn’t do it at night time.’’ He also cited the danger of night searches for rescuers.
In the first communication, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority advised that the boat was eight nautical miles from the Java coast. The survivors drifted to about 42 nautical miles from the coast.
Mr Clare defended the search effort, saying: “It’s very hard to find people that are in distress on a little wooden boat.” With Defence Minister Stephen Smith and Transport Minister Anthony Albanese he will visit Jakarta next week for talks about defence and search and rescue co-ordination.
With MICHELLE GRATTAN