CANBERRA, Australia – A crowded boat carrying asylum seekers to Australia capsized Wednesday and 125 survivors and one body were recovered from the Indian Ocean, less than a week after more than 90 people drowned on a similar journey.
An air and sea search was ongoing for as many as 20 people who could still be missing, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.
Three merchant ships that responded to the capsizing rescued 125 people, and the authority said one body was recovered. The area is midway between Christmas Island and the main Indonesian island of Java.
The authority said up to 150 men, women and children may have been on the wooden Indonesian fishing boat.
Prime Minister Julian Gillard told Parliament that two Australian warships and an air force aircraft that can drop life rafts on the sea joined the search by late Wednesday.
The area is 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Australia’s Christmas Island and 185 kilometers (115 kilometers) south of Java. The boat capsized in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone but Australian authorities had raised the alarm, Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman Jo Meehan said.
The first merchant ship reached the scene more than four hours later, she said.
Last Thursday, 110 people were rescued when a boat carrying more than 200 mostly Afghan asylum seekers capsized only 24 kilometers (15 miles) from the latest tragedy. Only 17 bodies were recovered.
The survivors’ refugee applications were being assessed at Christmas Island, where Australia runs an immigration detention center.
Australia is a common destination for boats carrying asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and other poor or war-torn countries.
Last week’s disaster rekindled debate in Parliament on how Australia should deter asylum seekers from risking the hazardous sea journey. The government wants to send new boat arrivals to Malaysia in exchange for accepting U.N.-recognized refugees living there. The opposition won’t support the legislation because Malaysia has not signed the Refugee Convention.
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