Australia-Bound Boat Capsizes, Fate of 200 Refugees Unknown [UPDATED]

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June 21, 2012

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SYDNEY–A major rescue effort is underway after a boat carrying up to 200 asylum seekers capsized off the coast of Australia’s remote Christmas Island Thursday, in an incident likely to again turn the spotlight on border control policies.

An unknown number of survivors are clinging to the hull of the vessel and the Australian air force has deployed life rafts for survivors in the water around 118 nautical miles north of the island, a spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

A large commercial shipping vessel is also on the scene after responding to Australian calls for assistance after customs and border protection officials spotted the capsized boat mid-afternoon, he said.

An Australian navy patrol boat is due on the scene in an hour and a half, with another on the way as authorities scramble to pull survivors from the water before night fall, the spokesman said.

The boat capsized in Indonesian waters and the rescue efforts are being coordinated by Indonesia, which is a common staging point for refugees seeking to reach Australia.

Christmas Island, around 220 miles south of Java, and around 1,600 miles from the Australian mainland, is a front line for Australia’s border protection and a black spot for the often rickety boats that smugglers use to transport people seeking asylum. Hundreds have died making the perilous crossing in recent times, inflaming tensions around what was already a thorny issue for the minority Labor government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Christmas Island’s population is composed predominantly of asylum seekers, with about 2,000 refugees and detention-center staff living there. The island, surrounded by steep cliffs and a hazardous reef, has been excised from Australia’s migration zone so asylum seekers traveling by boat are taken to Christmas Island rather than to the mainland.

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