A boat carrying more than 250 of migrant workers from Iran,Afghanistan and Turkey, capsized and sank in waters off Prigi, East Java, on Saturday, lacked safety equipment, resulting in a mad scramble for just 19 available life vests on board, the head of the search and rescue team dispatched the accident said on Sunday and so far only 33 people have been rescued.
The doomed ship had 25 life jackets on board, but six of them taken by the ship’s crew, leaving the hundreds of panicking passengers to fight amongst themselves for the remaining 19 life jackets.
The accident, which was initially thought to have been caused by rough seas, might have also been caused by the fact that the ship had too many passengers aboard. The ship’s maximum capacity was 100 passengers.
Bad weather and waves of up to five metres (16ft) hampered rescue efforts on Sunday, with 300 rescuers including navy and police officers searching the sea for bodies.
One survivor, 17-year-old Afghan student Armaghan Haidar, said he was sleeping when a storm came up and began to rock the boat.
“I felt water touching my feet and woke up. As the boat was going down, people were panicking and shouting and trying to rush out,” he told reporters.
“I managed to swim out and hang on to the side of the boat with about 100 others.
“(There were) about 20 to 30 others with life jackets, but another 100 people were trapped inside,” he said.
The student said he flew from Dubai to Indonesia and boarded a boat in West Java. “We want to go to Christmas Island and live a better life in Australia,” he said. “There is nothing in Afghanistan. There’s a lot of terrorism. We couldn’t study, go to college, find jobs. There’s no future for us there.”
According to local officials most of the passengers came from Afghanistan or Iran, paying agents between $2,500 and $5,000 to seek asylum in Australia.
Thousands of asylum-seekers head through Southeast Asian countries on their way to Australia every year and many link up with people-smugglers in Indonesia for the dangerous sea voyage.
Christmas Island is a favoured destination for people-smugglers, lying closer to Indonesia than it does to Australia. Many boats run into trouble as they are either badly maintained, overcrowded or both. Nearly 50 would-be migrants are believed to have died in wild seas during a shipwreck at Christmas Island in December 2010.
Australia’s government called the sinking “a terrible tragedy”, but came under pressure from campaign groups which said its tough approach to refugees was partly responsible for such disasters.
Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently agreed a deal where asylum seekers wishing to live in Australia would have their claims processed in Malaysia. In return, Malaysia sent a number of legitimate refugees to Australia.
The Australian high court, however, overturned the plan leaving the country’s asylum policy in disarray.
The number of boatpeople arriving in Australia increased to almost 900 in November, with at least nine ships intercepted in Australian waters so far this month.