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More bodies in Australia shipwreck
Authorities say little hope that more survivors will be found as tragedy sparks political debate on immigration.
Last Modified: 17 Dec 2010 09:50 GMT

The true scale of the tragedy may never be known as many of the bodies may never be recovered [EPA]

Hopes of finding more survivors faded, two days after a boat carrying asylumseekers was shipwrecked off Christmas Island.

Police divers have pulled two more bodies from the sunken wreckage of the boat packed with people of Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish origin.

"Given the passage of time, I believe we do need to face the grim reality" that no more survivors will be found, Julia Gillard, the prime minister, said on Friday.

At least 42 people have been rescued alive after the boat sank on Wednesday near the island, which lies off Australia's western coast. The official death toll has so far reached 30, but was thought to be higher as the boat was believed to have been carrying about 100 asylum seekers.

Among the survivors were three Indonesians suspected of being people smugglers, whom Gillard said were being interviewed by Australian police.

The true scale of the tragedy may never be known, Gillard said, because officials have not been able to determine exactly how many people were aboard the boat. Many may have been carried away by currents into the Indian Ocean or sunk to the depths.

Dennis Shanahan, a journalist for The Australian newspaper, told Al Jazeera that the remaining bodies may not be found for weeks, if at all, due to the rough weather conditions and underwater caves in the area.

"There aren't any further survivors; it does appear now to be a complete body retrieval exercise at Christmas Island," he said.

The camps detainees protested over the incident on Friday, Al Jazeera's Andrew Thomas reported from Christmas Island.

The protest quickly gained pace, and "literally spilled over the security fences of this detention centre," he reported.

Around one hundred protestors, mainly men, waved signs with messages rading "The children died, why?" and chanting "UN, UN," Thomas said.

Police and staff reinforcements soon contained the crowd, and prevented Al Jazeera's correspondent from speaking directly to the detainees about their protest.

Suspected smugglers

Most of the other survivors were being cared for at a local hospital, and authorities transported five people with the worst injuries to mainland Australia for treatment.

The tragedy highlighted the dangers hundreds of refugees face every year as they try to sail from Indonesia to Australia in cramped, barely seaworthy boats with few provisions and no safety gear. Most come from poor, war-ravaged countries and stop in Indonesia before setting off to start new lives in Australia.

Christmas Island has become a target for 
people smugglers [GALLO/GETTY]

Some women and children on board the boat were reportedly trying to join husbands and fathers being held in the immigration detention centre on Christmas Island.

The 135-sqkm island is far closer to the main Indonesian island of Java than to mainland Australia, and has become a target for people smugglers who load asylum seekers on board the boats with promises they will take them to Australia.

Australian authorities acting on intelligence information usually track larger asylum seeker boats after they leave Indonesia and intercept them when they reach Australian waters. But smaller boats may not be spotted until they are very close to land.

Refugee advocates suggested Australian authorities should have known about the stricken boat and done more to intercept it before it neared the rocky coast. But the prime minister praised the actions of the navy and customs officials who responded to the crisis, saying they risked their lives to save those in distress.

Asylum seekers have died in earlier journeys on the same route. In October 2001, 374 people perished - most of them believed to be from Afghanistan and Iraq - when a boat sank en route from Indonesia to Christmas Island. Two years earlier, a boat believed to be carrying about 100 people disappeared and may have sunk.

Politics laid bare

As public shock subsided, political debate over the issue was picking up.

Gillard proposed a bipartisan parliamentry group to investigate the disaster, in addition to police and coronial investigations. The opposition refused her suggestion on Friday, according to The Australian.

The accident has the potential to unsettle Gillard's minority government, which rules with support from three independent and one Green legislator.

Shanahan of The Australian told Al Jazeera that Gillard's government faces pressure from the left for a more human approach, while the right points to Wednesday's tragedy as another reason for Australia to get "tougher" on boat migrants.

"What is happening is, as police launch their investigation, the political issue [that] is now a question for Julia Gillard as prime minister is what does she do to change the policies on border protection and asylum seekers in Australia to try and avert further disasters like this," Shanahan said.

The Refugee Action Coalition, a Sydney-based advocacy group, blamed the disaster on Australian government policies.

"The blame lies with the Australian government. If the Australian government was willing to properly process asylum seekers in Indonesia and resettle successful refugees in Australia, then far fewer people would get on boats to travel to Australia," Ian Rintoul, a spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, said.

"The government needs to stop pushing Indonesia to harass and detain asylum seekers. The intimidation in Indonesia is itself pushing people to leave Indonesia to find safety."

Yet commentators argue it is unlikely the shipwreck will push the government to change its stance. The opposition has regularly blamed the government's softer policies on asylum seekers for encouraging refugee boats carrying mainly Iraqi and Afghani asylum seekers from Indonesia.

In 2001, the then Labor opposition lost what was regarded as a guaranteed win in the election which centred on asylum seekers, after voters favoured conservative John Howard's hardline approach.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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