Survivors pray for 30 lost in Australia refugee wreck

Debate has raged over Canberra`s policy on boat people arriving from Asia.

Last Updated: Dec 19, 2010, 14:06 PM IST

Sydney: Traumatised survivors of a refugee boat wreck off Australia held a private vigil behind bars for the 30 people who died, as debate raged over Canberra`s policy on boat people arriving from Asia.

Police divers trawled undersea caves along the coastline of remote Christmas Island but found no further bodies from Wednesday`s disaster, in which a rickety boat crowded with up to 100 Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish asylum seekers was dashed against sharp rocks.

The 42 people rescued from the sea now faced the harrowing task of identifying their loved ones among the dead, said police superintendent Gavin Ryan, after the search for survivors was called off late Friday.

Ryan said he expected "to have a definitive answer on how many are actually missing" by Monday, adding that the police focus was now on guiding survivors in identifying the victims -- a task he said was about halfway complete.

"It`s excruciating for everyone," Ryan said of the identification process.

"Some people react in different ways, but it`s an extremely traumatic thing to do.... It`s very traumatic for everyone, everyone in the hospital, obviously for the survivor."

Immigration department spokesman Peter Richards said the survivors were receiving "round the clock support" and would hold a private vigil inside the Christmas Island detention centre, Australia`s main immigration camp.

"It`s a very difficult time for the survivors, but also for other people within the detention facilities. There are a number we have identified, for example, that have relatives amongst this group (on the boat)," Richards said.

"The ceremony that`s held today is very much focussed around the victims, the survivors and their relatives."

Larger memorial events are expected at a later date, which will be open to the wider detainee community and the 1,200 permanent residents of Christmas Island.

Ryan said it was "fair to say that virtually the whole island is traumatised in one way or another".

Three Indonesian crewmen who survived Wednesday`s disaster have been interviewed and Ryan said he expected they would be charged, though he would not comment on whether a mass manslaughter case would be brought against them.

Ryan said there was no suggestion that the people-smuggling boat had been sabotaged, and early indications were that the cyclonic weather conditions were a "very, very significant part of what led to the tragedy".

More than 5,000 refugees, mostly from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, have made their way to Australia this year on leaky boats from Indonesia, packing Christmas Island to capacity and forcing new centres to open on the mainland.

Tension has erupted into protests at the island`s detention centre, where advocates say survivors of the shipwreck -- who include three children orphaned by the disaster -- have been segregated from other detainees.

Richards said officials had worked closely with the centre`s inmates to plan Sunday`s memorial and he was "very confident that the dignified respectful ceremony will occur" and there would be no further protests.

The crash has provoked criticism of Australia`s refugee policies, with the UNHCR urging Canberra to speed up the repatriation of people whose claims have been rejected and calling for greater regional cooperation on the issue.

Tony Abbott, leader of the conservative opposition, called for a return to harsh policies of turning boats back where possible and locking refugees up on remote Pacific Islands as a deterrent to the lucrative people-smuggling trade.

But Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the disaster had steeled his resolve to create a regional processing centre to tackle "what is an international and enduring problem".

"People smugglers and asylum seekers know... that an offshore processing centre in the absence of a regional and international framework is no disincentive for coming to Australia," Bowen said.

Bureau Report