Dozens missing feared dead in boat sinking

Indonesian authorities are searching for survivors after the sinking of an asylum seeker boat believed to be bound for Australia.

Dozens are missing feared dead after the sinking off the coast of Java, with reports that a young girl was among three known fatalities.

The latest tragedy comes amid a torrid political debate over how to deal with asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat, and as Immigration Minister Tony Burke prepares to visit detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island this week.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the sinking underlined the need for the federal government to change its policy and send a strong signal to deter people from using people smugglers.

''We're seeing too many drownings; we're seeing too many sinkings; we're seeing too many innocent people lost at sea,'' he said in Melbourne on Wednesday.

Mr Rudd conceded his new policy of sending all boat arrivals to Papua New Guinea would be "tough" to implement and there would be "bumps along the road" but accused Opposition Leader Tony Abbott of trying to muddy the message to people smugglers as it would not be in Mr Abbott's political interests for the Labor scheme to work.

Christmas Island adminstrator Jon Stanhope told ABC Canberra local radio on Wednesday that a boat, "with well over 100 people on board" was being unloaded, and another was on its way.

''They haven't stopped yet, (and) these are all post-announcement boats,'' Mr Stanhope said. The boat being unloaded brings the number that have arrived since Mr Rudd's PNG announcement on Friday to six.

On Wednesday, Mr Abbott said he was not ''crass enough'' to directly blame anyone in Australia for the tragedies at sea. ''The people smugglers bear the responsibility for this,'' he told reporters in Queensland.

But the Opposition Leader again said Mr Rudd should be ''man enough'' to admit that he had ''got it wrong'' when he wound back the Howard-era Pacific Solution in 2008.

Mr Abbott said the only way to stop the boats was to change the government.

Mr Abbott also said Mr Rudd had to stop "buck passing" and fix the boat arrivals issue.

The Opposition Leader repeated his call to reintroduce temporary protection visas and said the government should "be serious" about offshore processing.

He also said the Navy should be able to turn boats around.

"We've got to give the Navy a real job, and the real job of the Navy is to turn boats around where it is safe to do so."

"Let's not reduce the Australian Navy to a water tax service for people smugglers, and that I regret to say is what's happened under Mr Rudd."

Mr Abbott has been resolute about his turn backs policy, despite numerous questions raised about the safety and practicality of the policy.

Chief of Navy Ray Griggs and Border Protection Command Commander David Johnston have previously said there were risks involved with the policy.

Indonesian's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has also said Indonesia did not support the policy.

157 rescued

ABC Indonesia correspondent George Roberts said the latest advice from the search and rescue team suggested 200 people had been on board the boat that sunk off the coast of Java.

Indonesia's Search and Rescue Agency has said 157 people were rescued and three were confirmed dead.

The people on the boat were from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka, Mr Roberts said.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority confirmed that it was aware of the boat sinking and the search and rescue operation was being led by Indonesian authorities.

A spokeswoman said AMSA had offered assistance but Indonesia had not taken it up.

The government, meanwhile, confirmed that it had intercepted another boat heading to Christmas Island.

HMAS Bathurst reached the vessel west of Christmas Island on Monday. It had 38 passengers and two crew members on board.

A Customs statement, issued on Wednesday, said Border Protection Command transferred the people to Christmas Island for initial health checks.

They will be subject to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's new policy of sending all boat arrivals to PNG without prospect of settlement in Australia.

It came as asylum seekers allegedly responsible for a rampage that caused about $60 million of damage to the Nauru detention centre appeared in court.

A Nauru government information office spokeswoman said people were appearing in court in groups of 10. She said six groups of 10 had appeared in court on Wednesday morning and more would follow. They faced charges related to rioting and wilful damage on Friday.

The spokeswoman said the court had formally denied bail.

Mr Rudd's hardline new plan, aimed at deterring people from taking perilous boat journeys, has angered refugee advocates and human rights lawyers while Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has questioned whether the plan would work if arrivals were not sent immediately to PNG.

Mr Burke said on Wednesday that he would consider the government's asylum seeker policy a success when the drownings stopped.

''I'm not somebody who bashes the table and says look how tough we are,'' he told ABC radio.

''We've got people drowning in the Indian Ocean and I want it to stop.''

Manus abuse claims

Mr Burke refused to walk away from the new policy of sending all arrivals to PNG, despite explosive claims about safety at the Manus Island detention centre.

Former G4S guard Rod St George, who worked as a compliance manager before resigning in mid-April, told SBS TV's Dateline that asylum seekers had been sexually abused and tortured by other asylum seekers.

Mr Burke said he was informed of the ''horrific'' allegations about two weeks ago, before the PNG deal was announced, but Tuesday night was the first time he had been put in touch with the whistleblower. He said he wanted to ensure groups were able to be kept separate and improve staff training on Manus Island.

Send asylum seekers now: Abbott

But he took aim at the opposition's criticism of the delay in sending people to PNG.

Mr Abbott said on Tuesday that the deal was getting ''murkier and murkier by the day'' and would be undermined if all boat arrivals were not sent to Manus Island within two days.

''If Mr Rudd is serious about intimidating the people smugglers and their customers, people have got to be leaving for Manus Island now,'' Mr Abbott said.

''People have got to be leaving for Manus Island now and it is absolutely clear that no one is going to Manus any time soon which is why I say that whatever the merits in any arrangements that this government enters into, you simply can’t trust them to put it into practice.''

Mr Burke said Mr Abbott, as a former health minister, knew that a two-day turnaround would not allow enough time for health checks, including testing for active tuberculosis.

''What he was suggesting, and daring us to do, puts people directly in harm's way,'' Mr Burke said.

''You can only read it one of two ways. Either he was saying we should not do the health checks and just put people in a situation of dangerous disease, or he was setting up a test that he knew would fail so that he could encourage people to get on boats.

''To be honest I remain absolutely appalled by that one. There are a lot of things in politics where you'll think it’s just part of the argy bargy of political debate but on this one we're talking about him actively encouraging people to put their lives at risk on the high seas because he thinks it helps him in the election and I can’t countenance that for a minute.''

Mr Burke said he had made clear on Friday, when the deal was announced, that it would take a couple of weeks for people to begin being sent across. It would also take longer to transfer children because facilities needed to be improved.

Cost of policy

Mr Rudd said the cost of the tough new policy would be revealed in an economic and financial statement expected to be released by the government before the start of the election campaign.

''We don't apologise for our policy of saying to people smugglers that if you bring people to Australia by boat you will not be settled in Australia,'' he told Fairfax Radio 3AW on Wednesday.

with Judith Ireland and Bianca Hall

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