CANBERRA, Australia – Australia calls it a "closing-down sale" for people smugglers: Asylum-seekers in rickety boats have been reaching its shores in record numbers to avoid a tougher new deportation policy the country is preparing to implement. For many migrants, the price of haste may be death.
About 150 people were aboard an overcrowded, wooden fishing boat that sank off the Indonesia coast as it headed for a remote Australian island. Only 22 people had been rescued by Thursday evening, and the captain of one rescue vessel believes he saw bodies in the water.
The emergency was the latest created by a growing human smuggling trade in which thousands of would-be refugees from countries including Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka attempt dangerous sea voyages from Indonesia to Australia.
Australia's center-left Labor Party government announced plans this month to deter future arrivals by deporting new asylum seekers who arrive by boat to the Pacific atoll of Nauru or to Australia's nearest neighbor, Papua New Guinea. The government says they will be held in tent camps for as long as they would spend in refugee camps if they had not paid people smugglers to take them to Australia.
The new approach will begin when the Nauru camp opens in September, but meanwhile the rush is on. More than 1,900 people have arrived in Australia in August — the highest monthly total on record — in hopes of accelerating a refugee claims process that can take years.
The numbers have been steadily climbing: More than 9,800 asylum seekers have arrived this year, more than double the total for all of 2011.
"People smugglers are running a closing-down sale," Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said. He predicts asylum seekers will stop paying people smugglers $10,000 or more to transport them more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Indonesia or Malaysia by boat if they are not guaranteed that they will be accepted by Australia.
A previous conservative government established camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea a decade ago as part of a policy that slowed boat arrivals to a trickle but was condemned by human rights groups as cruel.
A Labor government closed the camps after winning elections in 2007, a year when only 339 asylum seekers arrived by boat. As the numbers have grown, the influx, and the deaths of would-be migrants at sea, have angered many Australians.
No asylum-seeker deaths have been confirmed since the policy change was announced, but more than 300 have lost their lives making the perilous journey across the Sunda Strait between Indonesia and the Australian territory of Christmas Island since December. More than 90 of them died in two boat accidents that occurred within a week of each other in June.
Authorities also fear the worst for 67 asylum seekers who have not contacted family or friends since they left Indonesia on an Australia-bound boat in late June.
In the latest incident, a boat reportedly carrying 150 asylum seekers sank off the main Indonesian island of Java on Wednesday.
The crew of a merchant ship taking part in the search, Liberian-flagged APL Bahrain, spotted survivors in the water early Thursday 75 kilometers (45 miles) southwest of Java and rescued six, Clare said.
"There are grave fears for a lot more," Clare told reporters.
The Bahrain's captain, Manuel Nistorescu, told the Fairfax Media website that he was about to abandon the late-night search when he heard whistles and yelling from the dark water.
Nistorescu said the six rescued, all Afghan men, appeared to be in good condition and had been in the water for almost 24 hours. There were also women and children aboard the asylum-seeker boat when it sank, he said.
He added that he believed he saw bodies in the water. "I think I saw some of them dead," he said.
Australian Maritime Safety Authority said a navy patrol boat later retrieved another 16 survivors, and an aircraft crew had spotted more survivors in the water.
Authority spokeswoman Jo Meehan said other merchant ships, Australian military aircraft and Indonesian government ships also were involved in the search.
Australian authorities received a call by satellite phone early Wednesday from someone aboard the missing boat requesting help. The person said there were 150 people aboard and the vessel had engine trouble. The boat was then 15 kilometers (9 miles) off Java, officials said.
Indonesian authorities launched a search with two boats and a helicopter but found no trace of the boat by late Wednesday.
Australia alerted Indonesia to the initial distress call, alerted shipping companies to look out for the boat and offered information including estimates of where the boat might have drifted. Meehan said Australia had offered ships and aircraft to help the Indonesians search Wednesday, but the offer was not taken up at the time.
Gagah Prakoso, spokesman for the Indonesian Search And Rescue Agency, denied that Indonesia had refused any offer of help.
"This is a humanitarian mission and Indonesia will never reject offers from any country including Australia," Prakoso said.
Clare, who is the minister responsible for Australian rescue authorities, said Indonesia should not be criticized for failing to find survivors on Wednesday.
"It is very hard to find people that are in distress on a little wooden boat in the middle of the Sunda Strait," he said.
Yopie Haryadi, an official of the Indonesian Search And Rescue Agency, said an Indonesian rescue boat and two helicopters had on Wednesday searched a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius where Australian authorities said the distressed boat was located, but did not find finding wreckage or an oil spill.
The merchant ship found the first six survivors after Australia expanded the search area.
Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini contributed to this report from Jakarta.