GRAVE fears are held for up to 144 asylum seekers who may have bought a "ticket to the bottom of the sea" from people smugglers, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said.
Some 150 people left Indonesia on a boat headed for Christmas Island on Wednesday, before distress calls were taken from the boat on Wednesday afternoon.
Minister Clare said six people had been plucked from the sea, and he held grave fears for the remaining 144 people.
He said people smugglers were still trying to push people on to boats headed for Australia, in an effort to make as much money as possible.
"They're telling people they're selling them a ticket to Australia - what they're really doing is selling them a ticket to Nauru, or a ticket to the bottom of the sea."
In two distress calls made on Wednesday afternoon, a person on board said there were some 150 people on board and the boat had suffered engine failure and was taking on water, eight nautical miles south-east of Java.
After two phone calls, Australia's search-and-rescue ship RCC Australia notified Indonesia's search and rescue agency, BASARNAS, which assumed responsibility for the operation.
Indonesian helicopters and an Australian Dash 8 went to search the area late on Wednesday, but did not find the boat or any people.
The Dash 8 has to return to Christmas Island due to fuel and weather issues and was unable to return during the night.
Early Thursday morning, merchant ship APL Bahrain then attended the area after calls for help went out in the area, finding and saving six people in the area.
Mr Clare said the passing of legislation to send refugees to off-shore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, had helped created a "closing down sale" for people smugglers.
But he said he hoped the new laws would shut down the people smugglers' business model.
Earlier on Thursday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard signed a memorandum of understanding with Nauru to re-open the Nauru processing centre, during talks at the Pacific Islands forum in the Cook Islands.
The MoU was the first official diplomatic step between Australia and Nauru towards the re-opening of the centre, expected later this year.
BOAT CRISIS TIMELINE:
- Wednesday 4.20am and 5.05am: Two phone calls from the vessel asking for help
- Wednesday 5.05am: Australia alerted BASARNAS to the search and rescue incident which sends two ships to help
- Wednesday mid-afternoon: first helicopter arrives to search area
- Wednesday 4pm: Australia gets fax from BASARNAS saying the helicopter did not find the boat
- Wednesday just after 4pm: Customs Dash 8 plane leaves Christmas Island to search area
- Wednesday, late: AMSA finds vessel using satellite phone data
- Wednesday, late: Dash 8 forced to abandon search due to low fuel and weather conditions
- Wednesday, 9pm: Merchant vessel APL Bahrain arrives to search area
- Thursday, 3.30am: Bahrain finds people in water, saving six people
SOURCE: Australian Government, latest information at print deadline, Thursday August 30.
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