Australia calls it a "closing-down sale" for people smugglers: asylum-seekers in rickety boats are reaching its shores in record numbers ahead of a tougher deportation policy starting in September. For many migrants, the price of haste may be death.
About 150 people were aboard an overcrowded, wooden fishing boat that sank off the Indonesia coast as it headed for a remote Australian island. Only 55 people had been rescued yesterday and the captain of one rescue vessel believes he saw bodies in the water.
The emergency was the latest created by a growing human smuggling trade in which thousands of would-be refugees from countries including Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka attempt dangerous sea voyages from Indonesia to Australia.
Australia's centre-left Labour Party government announced plans this month to deter future arrivals by deporting new asylum seekers who arrive by boat to the Pacific atoll of Nauru or to Australia's nearest neighbor, Papua New Guinea. The government says they will be held in tent camps for as long as they would spend in refugee camps if they had not paid people smugglers to take them to Australia.
The new approach will begin when the Nauru camp opens in September, but meanwhile the rush is on. More than 1,900 people have arrived in Australia in August, the highest monthly total on record, in hopes of accelerating a refugee claims process that can take years.
The numbers have been steadily climbing: More than 9,800 asylum seekers have arrived this year, more than double the total for all of 2011.