Australian officials have given up hope of finding survivors after nearly 100 asylum seekers vanished in choppy seas off Indonesia when their overcrowded vessel sank en route to Australia.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said on Friday it was pulling out of the rescue operation after determining there was no “realistic prospect of survivability” for 44 people.
By Friday afternoon, 55 survivors had been pulled from the water and one body had been recovered, Australian and Indonesian officials said.
Six were in critical condition, Sunarbowo Sandi, an Indonesian search and rescue official, said.
The asylum seekers were travelling on a wooden fishing boat that sank off the main Indonesian island of Java two days ago.
Indonesian authorities said they planned to continue searching, though huge swells were hampering their efforts.
The emergency was the latest created by a growing human smuggling trade in which thousands of would-be refugees from countries including Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka attempt dangerous sea voyages from Indonesia to Australia.
Asylum seekers, desperate to speed up the refugee claims process which can take years, are often herded onto overcrowded, rickety boats that try to make it to the Australian territory of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.
The trip has proved deadly for many and hundreds of asylum seekers have died while attempting the journey since December.
“It’s a big ocean; it’s a dangerous ocean,” Julia Gillard, Australia’s prime minister, said Friday. “We’ve seen too many people lose their lives trying to make the journey to Australia.”
Gillard’s center-left Labor Party government announced plans in August to deter future arrivals by deporting new asylum seekers who arrive by boat to the Pacific atoll of Nauru or to Australia’s nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea.
The government says they will be held in tent camps for as long as they would have spent in refugee camps if they had not paid people smugglers to take them to Australia.
Since the announcement, a rush of asylum seekers have attempted to reach Australia before the Nauru camp opens in September. More than 1,900 asylum seekers arrived in Australia in August – the highest monthly total on record.
In the latest incident, the boat was 15km off Java when someone on board issued a distress signal early Wednesday, saying the boat had engine trouble.
Richard Marles, Australia’s junior foreign minister, said the emergency highlighted the need for Australia to urgently establish detention camps in the Pacific island states of Papua New Guinea and Nauru to hold asylum seekers who reach Australia by boat.
The government hopes to send the first asylum seekers to a tent camp on Nauru in September in a strategy to deter others from attempting the same boat journey.
Asylum seekers often target Christmas Island, off Australia’s northwest coast, to get to the country.
In August, 60 asylum seekers were reported missing off the Australian coast.
In June, a boat with 200 asylum seekers sank near Christmas island, leaving 17 fatalities and another 70 people feared dead after a three-day search.
That disaster, the second boat to sink in a week, reignited the debate on asylum in parliament.