SYDNEY – Australian rescue officials ended their search Friday for nearly 100 asylum seekers who vanished in choppy seas off Indonesia after their overcrowded boat sank en route to Australia.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a statement that it was pulling out of the rescue operation after determining there was "no realistic prospect of survivability" for the asylum seekers still missing two days after their wooden fishing boat sank off the main Indonesian island of Java.
By Friday afternoon, 55 survivors had been pulled from the water and one body had been recovered, Australian and Indonesian officials said. Six were in critical condition, Indonesian search and rescue official Sunarbowo Sandi said.
Indonesian authorities said they planned to continue searching, though huge swells were hampering their efforts.
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.
Asylum seekers hoping to speed up the refugee claims process — which can take years — are herded onto overcrowded, rickety boats that try to make it to the Australian territory of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. The trip has proved deadly for many: more than 300 asylum seekers have died while attempting the journey since December.
"It's a big ocean; it's a dangerous ocean," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Friday. "We've seen too many people lose their lives trying to make the journey to Australia."
Gillard's center-left Labor Party government announced plans in August 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 have spent in refugee camps if they had not paid people smugglers to take them to Australia.
Since the announcement, a rush of asylum seekers have attempted to reach Australia before the Nauru camp opens in September. More than 1,900 asylum seekers arrived in Australia in August — the highest monthly total on record.
In the latest incident, the boat was 15 kilometers (9 miles) off Java when someone on board issued a distress signal early Wednesday, saying the boat had engine trouble. The crew of a merchant ship taking part in the search, Liberian-flagged APL Bahrain, spotted survivors in the water early Thursday and rescued six people, Australian Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said.
The Bahrain's captain, Manuel Nistorescu, told the Fairfax Media website that he believes he saw dead bodies in the water.
Other merchant ships, Indonesian government ships and Australian military boats and planes joined the search.
The 55 survivors, including six who were hurt and in critical condition, were taken to Merak, 120 kilometers (75 miles) west of Jakarta, for medical treatment, and would then be transferred to an immigration detention facility there, said Sandi, the Indonesian search and rescue official.
After docking in Merak, however, some of the survivors refused to get off the ship and were demanding they be allowed to continue to Australia on a new boat. Indonesian authorities were trying to persuade them to leave the ship.
Associated Press writers Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.