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Scores feared dead off Java as Australia laments rush of boats

August 30, 2012 | 10:27 am

Rescue

In the dwindling days before Australia reopens island detention camps for asylum seekers who try to reach its shores by sea, as many as 100 people are feared dead on yet another sunken boat off Indonesia. Australian officials have bemoaned a recent rush of boats before the camps open.

The troubled boat is believed to have held as many as 150 people, more than 50 of whom have reportedly been saved since early Wednesday morning when Australian rescue teams got a distress call from southwest of Java. Scores more are still missing.

Indonesian search and rescue crews tried to spot the struggling vessel from the air, but didn’t find people in the water until early Thursday morning, a lag that has spurred criticism of its efforts.

“Don't underestimate how hard it is to find people in the middle of the sea,” Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare told reporters Thursday in Sydney, defending the Indonesian rescuers.  

The deaths come weeks after Australia decided to establish camps for asylum seekers offshore on Nauru and Papua New Guinea while their cases are weighed in an attempt to discourage people from risking their lives on rickety boats to reach Australia.

The country used to hold asylum seekers on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus in Papua New Guinea, but abolished the practice years ago under a torrent of criticism from human rights groups.

After the camps were closed, however, more people began arriving by boat, triggering a tense political battle over whether Australia should return to its past practices or try to hold them somewhere else. A string of boat tragedies that left scores dead added more pressure to act.

Lawmakers agreed to the plan to put camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea earlier this month, heralding the idea as a way to put a stop to the dangerous smuggling.

Refugee rights groups saw the plan as anything but humane. Though it also increases the number of people that Australia will consider for asylum, human rights activists argue it leaves desperate refugees to languish indefinitely in isolating, punitive conditions. Coming by boat is just as legal as seeking asylum by other means, refugee rights groups say.

“Nauru is not stopping any boat from embarking on a dangerous journey, it is merely a different destination for those who do,” said John Sweeney, research coordinator at the Edmund Rice Centre in Australia.

Australian officials say a rush of boats has been trying to reach Australia before the camps are built. More people arrived in August than ever before, the Associated Press reported.

“People smugglers are running a closing-down sale,” Clare said Thursday. “They're telling people, get on the boat before there's no more chance to come to Australia.”

The Nauru facility, expected to hold up to 500 people, is supposed to be ready by the end of September. Nauru and Australia announced Wednesday that they had signed an agreement formalizing the plan. The Papua New Guinea prime minister has said no new agreement is needed.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: An Indonesian officer from the National Search And Rescue Agency (Basarnas) communicates on board a rescue boat during a rescue preparation in Merak port, Banten Province, Indonesia on Thursday. Credit: Tubagus / European Pressphoto Agency

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