A boat believed to be carrying more than 250 migrants, many of them from the Middle East, has sunk off Indonesia’s main island of Java, rescuers say.
The vessel, which survivors said was headed for Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, went down in bad weather and heavy seas about 40 nautical miles off the coast of Java on Saturday.
Police blamed the accident on overloading, telling the country’s official news agency Antara that the vessel appeared to have been carrying more than twice its capacity.
“The passengers were very tightly packed, and therefore had nowhere to go … That made the boat even more unstable and eventually it sank“
– Esmat Adine, Afghan migrant
So far only 33 people have been rescued, Sahrul Arifin, the head of emergency and logistics at the East Java Disaster Mitigation Centre, said.
Bad weather and waves of up to five metres hampered rescue efforts on Sunday, with 300 rescuers including navy and police officers deployed to comb the sea for bodies.
The survivors are being kept at a community hall near Prigi beach, 640km southeast of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta.
Survivors interviewed by the AFP news agency and local officials said that most of the passengers came from Afghanistan or Iran, and they had paid agents between $2,500 and $5,000 to seek asylum in Australia.
Some claimed to be Iraqi, Pakistani, Turkish or Saudi nationals, and that their papers were lost at sea.
Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting from Jakarta, said that “chances of finding any more survivors was getting slimmer by the hour”.
One of the survivors, Esmat Adine, told Antara that the vessel began rocking from side to side, which triggered widespread panic.
“The passengers were very tightly packed, and therefore had nowhere to go,” said the 24-year-old Afghan migrant.
“That made the boat even more unstable and eventually it sank,” he added.
Adine said that he and others survived by clinging on to parts of the broken vessel until they were picked up by the local fishermen.
He estimated that more than 40 children were on the ship. It was not immediately clear if any were rescued.
|In September, an overcrowded vessel sank off the East African coast killing hundreds of people|
“It is another case of an overcrowded boat meeting with disaster. There have been similar accidents in the past as migrants come to Indonesia on their way to Australia,” Al Jazeera’s Vaessen said.
“Lots of people in Indonesia are involved in the business, basically a big people-smuggling business, where lots of money is involved.
“These people [migrants] pay thousands of dollars to take these journeys.”
Australia’s government called the sinking “a terrible tragedy”, but came under pressure from campaign groups which said its tough approach to refugees was partly responsible for such disasters.
Indonesia, a sprawling archipelagic nation of 240 million people, has more than 18,000 islands and thousands of kilometres of unpatrolled coastline, making it a key transit point for smuggling migrants.
Christmas Island is a favoured destination for people-smugglers, lying closer to Indonesia than it does to Australia.
Last month, a ship carrying about 70 asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan capsized off the southern coast of Central Java; at least eight people died.