Australia says survivors from suspected asylum boat spotted

SYDNEY Wed Aug 29, 2012 6:38pm EDT

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SYDNEY Aug 30 (Reuters) - Survivors from a suspected asylum seeker boat carrying about 150 people that appears to have sunk have been spotted in Indonesian waters, Australian maritime officials said on Thursday.

Australian and Indonesian search and rescue teams are heading to the area, around 8 nautical miles southwest of Java, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said in a statement.

A person on board the unidentified boat had contacted Australian rescue authorities by telephone on Wednesday, saying the vessel had engine trouble and needed assistance.

A search by Indonesian authorities failed to locate the boat, but a merchant vessel early on Thursday reported it had seen people in the water and was attempting to recover survivors, AMSA said.

Indonesian and Australian search-and-rescue vessels and other merchant vessels were now heading to the area to assist, AMSA added.

Refugees seeking asylum in Australia often set sail from Indonesia heading for Australia's Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island in dangerous and overcrowded boats, with the help of people smugglers.

Refugee policy and border protection are hot-button issues in Australia, despite the fact the country only receives a small number of the world's asylum seekers each year.

The U.N. refugee agency said Australia received 11,800 claims for asylum in 2011, compared with 441,000 claims globally, with 327,000 of those claims in Europe.

Australia is working on plans to reopen refugee detention centres in the Pacific islands nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to deter refugee boats from reaching Australia and prevent sinkings. (Reporting by Lincoln Feast; Editing by John Mair)

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