Australia has ended a three-day search for survivors from a refugee boat accident off remote Christmas Island, with little hope for around 90 people still missing.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said on Saturday searches of the sea north of the island had failed to find any more survivors, with the last living person found on Thursday night.
“Reports from the aerial and surface search crews confirm that no survivors remain in the extensive search area,” the AMSA said in a statement late on Saturday announcing the search had been called off.
Rescuers managed to save 110 people from the stricken people-smuggling ship, which capsized with some 200 people on board in the Indian Ocean on Thursday afternoon, two days after first issuing a distress call.
Six bodies have been recovered, with an estimated 90 people still missing.
“It is believed over 200 people may have been on board the vessel, but an accurate number may never be known,” the AMSA said.
The boat is believed to have originated in Sri Lanka and have been carrying mostly Afghan asylum-seekers. The survivors include a 13-year-old boy.
Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said earlier that the critical 36-hour search window had passed and conditions had steadily deteriorated, with the situation “looking grimmer by the hour”.
“There may still be people alive, but we’re past that window,” Clare told ABC Television.
“I’ve been on the phone to Border Protection Command. Their advice is that they’ve now instructed the men and women out in the search and rescue area to now identify people that have perished and retrieve those bodies.”
The capsize is the latest in a series of refugee boat disasters in the Indian Ocean in recent years, as rickety, overloaded vessels packed with desperate migrants struggle to reach Australia.
Most boats originate in Indonesia, though there has been a spike in attempts from Sri Lanka, with navy sources in Colombo telling AFP news agency that people-smugglers had been encouraged by the failure of a so-called people swap with Malaysia.
That deal, under which Canberra would have taken 4,000 registered refugees in exchange for 800 asylum-seekers, was scotched by the High Court of Australia last year, forcing an easing in the government’s mandatory detention policy.
Though they come in relatively small numbers by global standards, asylum-seekers are a sensitive political issue in Australia, dominating 2010 elections due to a record number of boat arrivals.
The latest accident is the worst since 2001, when a crowded people-smuggling boat called the SIEV X sank, killing 353 of the more than 400 people on board.
Some 50 refugees were killed in a horror shipwreck on the cliffs of Christmas Island during a violent storm in December 2010, including 15 children and a three months old baby.
A boat carrying around 250 mostly Afghan and Iranian asylum-seekers sank in Indonesian waters on its way to Christmas Island last year, with only 47 surviving.