BANDUNG, Indonesia — Rescuers were searching for several asylum seekers believed to be missing from a boat that sank off Indonesia while heading to Australia. Nearly 190 survivors were brought to safety and nine bodies were recovered.
The sinking occurred days after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd changed Australia’s refugee policy so that people who arrive by boat will no longer be allowed to settle in the country. The move was a response to domestic political pressure and a string of deadly accidents involving rickety boats packed with asylum seekers bound for Australia.
Local police chief Lt. Col. Dedy Kusuma said Wednesday that 189 people were rescued and nine bodies were recovered after the tugboat sank Tuesday night about 5 km off the coast of West Java’s Cianjur district. It was not clear how many people were missing.
West Java Police spokesman Col. Martinus Sitompul said the survivors included a pregnant Sri Lankan woman who was being treated at a health center in the town of Cidaun. A baby boy and a 10-year-old girl were among the dead.
Sitompul said the group was believed to consist of around 204 migrants from Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq. They departed Tuesday morning from Jayanti, a coastal town in Cianjur, using a smaller boat that was supposed to meet a larger ship at sea to complete the journey to Australia.
Their overloaded boat, built to carry only 150 passengers, sank about nine hours into the trip due to a leak. Some of the migrants scrambled for the lifeboat, while others swam before being rescued, he said, citing Iraqi survivor Ali Akbar.
Kusuma said police, fishermen and local villagers were continuing to search.
Rochmali, a rescuer at the scene who goes by one name, said the exact number of missing was unclear since some survivors may have fled to avoid authorities.
The asylum seeker issue has been a longstanding dilemma for both Indonesia and Australia.
Last week, Indonesia decided to stop issuing visas on arrival to Iranians because a growing number of them have been caught smuggling drugs or using Indonesia as a transit point for seeking asylum in Australia. The vast islands that make up Indonesia and its proximity to Australia’s Christmas Island make it a popular exit point for the perilous journey.
In its own policy shift, Australia said it would still assess the claims of asylum seekers who arrive by boat and would help them resettle in Papua New Guinea if their claims are recognized. Those whose claims are denied can return to their home nations or a third country other than Australia.
More than 15,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia by boat this year.
Rudd said the latest boat incident highlights the need for the policy shift.
“Too many innocent people have been lost at sea,” he told reporters in Melbourne on Wednesday.
“The asylum seeker policy we’ve adopted is about sending a very clear message to people smugglers that if you try to come to Australia by boat you will not be settled in Australia. … That is all about destroying the people smugglers’ business model,” Rudd said.
Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini and Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.