The incident comes days after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd changed Australia’s refugee policy so that people who arrive by boat will no longer be allowed to settle in the country.
Rescuers were searching on Wednesday for several asylum seekers still believed missing a day after their boat sank in Indonesian waters on the way to Australia. Nearly 190 survivors were brought to safety and nine bodies were recovered.
The incident comes days after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd changed Australia’s refugee policy so that people who arrive by boat will no longer be allowed to settle in the country. The move was a response to domestic political pressure and a string of accidents involving rickety boats packed with asylum seekers bound for Australia.
Local police chief Lt. Col. Dedy Kusuma said 189 people were rescued and nine bodies were recovered after the tugboat sank Tuesday night about 5 km off West Java’s Cianjur district. It was not clear how many people were missing.
West Java police spokesman Col. Martinus Sitompul said the survivors included a pregnant Sri Lankan woman who was being treated at a health center in the town of Cidaun. A baby boy and a 10-year-old girl were among the dead.
Col. Sitompul said the group was believed to consist of around 204 migrants from Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq. They departed on Tuesday morning from Jayanti, a coastal town in Cianjur, using a smaller boat that was supposed to meet a larger ship at sea to complete the journey to Australia.
Their overloaded boat, built to carry only 150 passengers, sank about nine hours into the trip due to a leak. Some of the migrants scrambled for the lifeboat, while others swam before being rescued, he said, citing Iraqi survivor Ali Akbar.
Lt. Col. Kusuma said the search for the remaining migrants believed missing would continue, involving police, fishermen and local villagers.
Rochmali, a rescuer at the scene who goes by one name, said the exact number of missing remained unclear since some survivors may have fled to avoid authorities.
The asylum seeker issue has been a longstanding dilemma for both Indonesia and Australia.
Last week, Indonesia decided to stop issuing visas on arrival to Iranians because a growing number of them have been caught smuggling drugs or using Indonesia as a transit point for seeking asylum in Australia.
As of last Friday, Australia said all newly arrived refugees would be resettled on the island nation of Papua New Guinea, though their claims for asylum will still be assessed in Australia and at detention camps in Papua New Guinea and the tiny island nation of Nauru.
Australia will help genuine refugees settle in Papua New Guinea. Others can return to their home nations or a third country other than Australia.
The move, condemned by refugee and human rights advocates, is an attempt to stem the flood of asylum seekers who travel to Australia from ports in Indonesia and Malaysia. Hundreds have died attempting the journey in recent years.
Indonesia is a popular exit point because its capital, Jakarta, lies just 500 km from Australia’s Christmas Island. More than 15,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia by boat this year.
Mr. Rudd said the latest boat incident highlights the need for the policy shift.
“Too many innocent people have been lost at sea,” he told reporters in Melbourne on Wednesday.
“The asylum seeker policy we’ve adopted is about sending a very clear message to people smugglers that if you try to come to Australia by boat you will not be settled in Australia. ... That is all about destroying the people smugglers’ business model,” Mr. Rudd said.