SIKAKAP, Indonesia – Indonesian fishermen on Friday rescued 43 starving, dehydrated Sri Lankans who had been adrift in a boat for nine days after their engine broke down while trying to reach Australia to seek asylum, police said.
Another group of about 60 Sri Lankans in a boat, also apparently heading for Australia amid a surge in attempts to arrive before a tough deportation policy takes effect, were seeking food and drink from communities nearby on Mentawi island in western Indonesia, Police Capt. Abdurachman Suryanegara said, citing reports from residents in the area.
Australian officials have noted a big spike in asylum seekers trying to make the dangerous sea journey to the country ahead of an immigration policy that goes into effect in the coming weeks.
A boat with about 150 asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Pakistan sank off Indonesia's main island of Java on Wednesday, leaving at about 95 people missing.
The Sri Lankans with engine trouble were discovered by fishermen off Mentawi island on Friday and towed the ashore, where the passengers were given medical treatment and placed in a temporary shelter pending processing by immigration authorities, Suryanegara said.
Members of the group, which includes four women and three children, are weak but in stable condition, he said. The group had run out of food and water after losing engine power nine days earlier, he said.
"Thank God they were found. They would have died if they were found any later," Suryanegara said.
He said police would try to catch up with the second group of Sri Lankans on Saturday.
The islands of Indonesia have long been a transit points for people fleeing war-ravaged countries on their way 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.
Australian officials hope that 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.
The policy marks a return to the approach started by a previous conservative government a decade ago, but which was dropped after a Labor government came to power in 2007.