Search for survivors in Australian boat crash ends

No more survivors are expected to be found from a deadly boat crash on a craggy Australian island this week and officials are preparing memorial services for the 30 people known to have died, the immigration minister said Saturday.

Officials have said the boat could have been carrying as many as 100 Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish asylum seekers when it shattered against cliffs in stormy seas on Wednesday. The bodies of 30 men, women and children were retrieved from the ocean, while 42 people were rescued.

"The search has moved from a search for survivors to a search for bodies," Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said Saturday.

Bowen said memorial services for the victims will be held at the Christmas Island detention center on Sunday and Monday. The island community is also planning a service, as many residents witnessed the disaster and tried to give assistance as the boat splintered and passengers were tossed into the water.

On Friday, asylum seekers at the detention center expressed remorse and anger at the incident by staging two protests. Some chanted, "Help me, U.N.," and complained of how long they have been held in detention.

Bowen said the protests were peaceful and the center was calm Saturday.

The tragedy has once again put the spotlight on the three-year-old Labor government's struggle to come up with an effective refugee policy. Critics on both sides say the current approach encourages asylum seekers to undertake perilous sea journeys.

In 2001, a Liberal government under Prime Minister John Howard imposed strict laws that included mandatory detention for asylum seekers, offshore detention centers and only temporary visas for those who were granted refugee status. The boats largely stopped coming.

When the Labor Party swept to power in late 2007, it relaxed the previous government's strict refugee laws as part of an effort to forge a fairer and more humane process.

Since then, boat arrivals have increased steadily. More than 120 carrying at least 6,000 people landed in 2010, the highest in 20 years. Currently the country takes 13,500 people annually, down from 21,000 a decade ago.

Hassan Varasi, an Afghan who came to Australia by boat in 2001, said nothing will stop people who are desperate to escape violence in their home countries.

"You'll do anything to save your life, even risking it on one of those boats," he said.