Asylum seekers may never be found
SYDNEY – More than a dozen asylum seekers unaccounted for since their boat smashed into rocky cliffs off an Australian island may never be found, the prime minister said yesterday, as the number believed killed in the crash rose to 48.
One woman who survived the crash off Christmas Island told The West Australian newspaper that the crew cut the boat’s engine in the middle of the night, saying it was best to wait for the Australian navy to come to their aid.
The crew told everyone to scream, but no one heard the cries until dawn broke, hours later, said Rana Mohamad, who fled Iraq with her family about a month ago and spoke to the newspaper through an interpreter. The account appeared in an article published yesterday.
The asylum seekers began panicking when the waves started to gain strength and there was still no sign of the navy, said Mohamad, who was taken to a hospital in the western Australian city of Perth. She was holding the hands of her husband and seven-year-old son when the boat broke apart. All three were wearing life jackets, but she does not know whether they survived.
Thirty bodies have been recovered since the rickety boat packed with Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish asylum seekers broke apart in stormy seas last week. Forty-two people were rescued from the churning surf, but officials believe many more were swept away in the strong currents, or sank to the ocean floor.
Rescue workers have been interviewing survivors to help determine exactly how many people were on board so they can clarify how many are still missing.
On Monday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said it appears about 90 asylum seekers were on the boat, based on the latest information from the Australian Federal Police.
“That does mean, of course, that we are still not able to account for around 18 people on the boat,” Gillard told reporters in Canberra. “But I do say that we may never know the total number with certainty.”
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said on Saturday that the search for survivors had switched to a search for bodies in the waters surrounding remote Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. But Gillard warned Monday that those still missing may never be found.
“We are, of course, talking about very rough seas, very rocky and difficult coastline, and so it may be that there are bodies of people who travelled on the boat that are never recovered,” she said. “So that is obviously very, very grim news.” (AP)