123 Rescued from Capsized Refugee Boat Off Australian Coast

Posted June 27th, 2012 at 3:10 am (UTC-5)
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Australian authorities have rescued most of the people on board a crowded refugee boat that overturned Wednesday in the Indian Ocean.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard says at least 123 people have been rescued from the boat, which capsized off Australia's remote Christmas Island.

“I'm advised that there are approximately, our numbers obviously can change, but there is reason to believe that there are around 123 to 133 people on board. As we speak, my best advice is that 123 people have been rescued.”

The sinking comes less than a week after another vessel headed for Australia carrying more than 200 asylum seekers capsized in the same area, killing up to 90 people.

The incidents have rekindled debate in Australia about how to deter the thousands of asylum seekers from making the dangerous sea journey each year in overcrowded and sometimes poorly constructed boats.

Prime Minister Gillard on Wednesday said she would immediately propose a bill that would revive an agreement reached last year to send new boat arrivals to Malaysia in exchange for accepting U.N.-recognized refugees living there.

Australia's opposition does not support the legislation because Malaysia has not signed the U.N. refugee convention, creating a deadlock on the politically sensitive issue.

The U.N. refugee agency says Australia received 11,800 claims for asylum in 2011, compared with 441,000 claims globally. This year, Australian authorities have detected more than 50 boats carrying over 4,000 refugees.

The latest boat accident occurred about 200 kilometers north of Christmas Island. Australian authorities say two warships and a military aircraft are assisting two merchant ships who initially arrived on the scene for the rescue efforts.

Australia is a major destination for people fleeing impoverished, war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Many of them are crammed into crowded detention centers on Christmas Island and the Australian mainland.