An asylum-seeker boat carrying an estimated 150 people went down Wednesday en route to Australia’s Christmas Island, barely a week after another vessel sank in the same area, killing up to 90.
“A vessel has capsized 107 nautical miles north of Christmas Island, there are reportedly 150 people on board,” an Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman told AFP, adding that people were in the water.
“We don’t have numbers on survivors at this stage.”
The incident follows another boat with around 200 people on board going down in the Indian Ocean as it made its way to Australia last Thursday.
Rescuers managed to save 110 people and 17 bodies were recovered, but no other survivors have been found.
“There are two merchant vessels on the scene, they are recovering survivors,” the AMSA spokeswoman said of Wednesday’s disaster, which happened in Indonesian waters.
The merchant ships were the MV Bison Express, a Philippines-flagged livestock carrier, and a tug boat.
“We expect the HMAS Maitland to arrive on the scene in approximately two hours and another Australian defence vessel to arrive later in the afternoon,” she added.
The incident is the latest in a series of refugee boat disasters in recent years, as rickety, overloaded vessels packed with desperate migrants struggle to reach Australia.
Most boats originate in Indonesia, though there has been a spike in attempts from Sri Lanka.
Though they come in relatively small numbers by global standards, asylum-seekers are a sensitive political issue in Australia, dominating 2010 elections due to a record 6,555 arrivals.
Political parties remain deadlocked on how to deal with them.
Both sides of Australian politics support offshore processing of asylum-seekers but differ on where it should be conducted.
Canberra clinched a deal last year to send 800 boat-people to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 of that country’s registered refugees in a bid to deter people–smugglers from the dangerous maritime voyage to Australia.
But Gillard’s fragile coalition government was unable to pass the required legislation through parliament without the support of the opposition amid concerns that Malaysia was not a signatory to UN refugee conventions.