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Boat crash forces look at Australia refugee policy

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SYDNEY>> Police divers have pulled two bodies from the sunken wreckage of a boat that was packed with asylum seekers when it was smashed to pieces on rocks on a remote Australian island, taking the death toll to at least 30 on Friday with scores believed to be missing.

The true scale of Wednesday’s tragedy may never be known because officials have not been able to determined how many people were aboard the boat, and many may have been carried away by currents into the Indian Ocean or sunk to the depths.

“Given the passage of time, I believe we do need to face the grim reality” that no more survivors will be found, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio: “The sad reality is we are now looking at more a recovery of bodies operation than a search for survivors,”

The wooden boat, carrying up to 100 asylum seekers of Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish origin, smashed into the jagged, limestone cliffs of Christmas Island, plunging the passengers into massive waves that battered them against the rocks. Twelve men, nine women and seven children — including four infants — were among the dead, the Customs and Border Protection Service said.

Forty-one people were rescued by navy and customs boats, while one man managed to clamber out of the surf to safety. Among the survivors were three Indonesians who are suspected people smugglers.

More than two dozen survivors were being cared for at a local hospital, and authorities transported five people with the worst injuries to mainland Australia for treatment. Trauma counselors, Red Cross workers and interpreters were on hand to help the 25 men, eight women and nine children who survived.

The tragedy highlighted the dangers hundreds of refugees face every year as they try to sail from Indonesia to Australia in cramped, barely seaworthy boats with few provisions and no safety gear. Most come from poor, war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan and stop in Indonesia before setting off to start new lives in Australia.

It emerged Friday that seven of those who died on the stricken vessel were related to a man who is being detained on Christmas Island after earlier making the sea journey to Australia. Local government leader Gordon Thomson said the man had been told his wife, uncle and “several other close relatives” were among the dead.

Gillard said that even with suspected organizers of the trip among the survivors, it was still unclear two days after the tragedy how many people had been aboard the boat. “We may never know that number with precision,” she said.

Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor said on Friday the bodies of a man and a boy aged about 11 were found near the hulk of the boat on Thursday, when seas calmed enough for divers to enter the water.

Christmas Island is the 52-square-mile (135-square-kilometer) tip of a dormant volcano poking out of the Indian Ocean 1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers) from the Australian mainland. It is far closer to the main Indonesian island of Java, and has become a target for people smugglers who load asylum seekers aboard the boats with promises they will take them to Australia.

Residents of Christmas Island, which houses a large detention center for asylum seekers that along with tourism forms the centerpiece of a local economy of about 1,500 people, watched helplessly from cliffs Wednesday as the stricken boat crashed ashore, dumping screaming men, women and children into the stormy surf.

Australian authorities acting on intelligence information usually track larger asylum seeker boats after they leave Indonesia and intercept them when they reach Australian waters. But smaller boats may not be spotted until they are very close to land.

The stricken boat appeared near the shore very early Wednesday morning in bad weather that hampered visibility.

Refugee advocates suggested Australian authorities should have known about the boat and done more to intercept it before it neared the rocky coast. But the prime minister praised the actions of the navy and customs officials who responded to the crisis, saying they risked their lives to save those in distress.

Asylum seekers have died in earlier journeys on the same route.

In October 2001, 374 people perished — most of them believed to be from Afghanistan and Iraq — when a boat sank en route from Indonesia to Christmas Island. Two years earlier, a boat believed to be carrying about 100 people disappeared and may have sunk.

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