JAKARTA (Reuters) - A boat carrying migrants to Australia sank off the Indonesian coast on Friday, killing at least 21 people, Indonesian police said, a sign that Australia’s tough new immigration rules may not be enough to deter would-be asylum seekers.
The latest disaster to strike refugees using Indonesia’s southern coast to try to reach Australia will cast a shadow over a visit to Jakarta on Monday by Australia’s new conservative prime minister Tony Abbott, whose tough stance on immigration was at the heart of his election campaign.
About 400 boats carrying asylum seekers have arrived in Australia over the past 12 months and about 45,000 asylum seekers have arrived since late 2007, when the former Labor government relaxed border policies, eventually tightening them again in the face of a voter backlash.
“All the passengers were from the Middle East. There were people from Lebanon and Yemen. The boat was going to Australia. Their next destination was Christmas Island,” Dedy Kusuma Bakti, police chief in Cianjur, West Java, told Reuters by telephone on Saturday.
Bakti said 28 survivors had been rescued. Some Indonesian media reported as many as 79 people might have drowned in the incident, although there was no official confirmation of a toll that high.
Situated in the Indian Ocean not far from Indonesia, the Australian territory of Christmas Island is a frequent destination for refugee boats from Indonesia and a favored route for people-smugglers.
Indonesian media reported that the motor boat sank off the south coast of Java near the town of Tegalbulued, about 190 km (120 miles) south of Jakarta.
The steady flow of refugee boats is a hot political issue in Australia, polarizing voters and stoking tension with neighbors like Indonesia and Sri Lanka over hardline border security policies that have been criticized by the United Nations.
In July, Canberra announced tough new measures to stem a sharp increase in the number of refugee boats heading for Australia from Indonesia. The new government has also stopped providing regular information on asylum boats turned away and emergencies at sea.
The new plans have been condemned by human rights groups, with Amnesty International accusing Australia of shirking its moral obligations to help the world’s most vulnerable people.
Abbott has made Indonesia his first overseas destination since winning a general election on September 7.
He will meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to seek support for his plan to have Australia’s navy turn migrants away and stop people traffickers operating from Indonesian ports.
Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and other lawmakers have criticized Abbott’s offer to pay Indonesian villagers for intelligence on people-smuggling gangs, and ridiculed the proposal to buy fishing boats often used to smuggle migrants, preferring to treat the issue as a regional problem.
Reporting by Rieka Rahadiana and Kanupriya Kapoor,; Writing by Jonathan Thatcher and Fergus Jensen; Editing by Paul Tait