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A ship believed to have been carrying about 150 people trying to reach Australia to seek political asylum sank on Wednesday in the seas south of Indonesia, Australian officials said, the second major naval accident in less than a week involving asylum seekers in the same area.

The announcement by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service that it had received a fresh distress call comes just days after Australia said it was abandoning the search for survivors of the previous wreck, a rickety fishing boat that capsized under rough conditions. As many as 90 people are believed dead from last week’s incident. Both ships sank roughly halfway to the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island, which is a popular port of call for boats carrying asylum seekers, who often brave the journey in aging and overcrowded boats.

“Australian government agencies are currently responding to reports of a second vessel in distress approximately 107 nautical miles, or just under 200 kilometers, north of Christmas Island and about 100 nautical miles, or around 185 kilometers, south of Indonesia,” the border protection service said in a news release.

“Initial reports are that up to 150 people may be on board,” it added. “Two merchant vessels are currently on the scene.”

The episodes are the latest in a long line of boat disasters involving asylum seekers desperate to reach Australia’s shores, where they are able to seek refugee status. In December 2010, an estimated 48 people died when their boat broke apart against Christmas Island’s rocky coast in front of horrified onlookers. In December of last year roughly 200 asylum seekers were believed to have died after their overcrowded ship sank off Java.

Australia has struggled for years to construct a framework to deter asylum seekers risking their lives in this manner. Under Prime Minister John Howard of the Liberal Party, they were sent to nearby island nations for lengthy processing, but that so-called Pacific Solution was abandoned when Kevin Rudd of the Labor Party became prime minister in 2007. The current prime minister, Julia Gillard, also of Labor, succeeded Mr. Rudd and inherited from him a significant increase in the number of boat arrivals. Her plan to ship them to Malaysia for processing was rejected by the High Court last year, and efforts to reach a compromise deal with the opposition Liberal-National coalition have broken down.

NY Times

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