Rescuers plucked 123 people from the ocean Wednesday after an asylum-seeker boat sank en route to Australia, barely a week after another vessel went down in the same area, killing up to 90.
The rickety ship capsized 107 nautical miles north of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean and then sank, an Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman said.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said between 123 and 133 people were on board, revised down from earlier estimates of 150.
“As we speak my best advice is that 123 people have been rescued,” she told parliament as the pressure was turned up on Australian politicians to break their deadlock on how to deal with the arrival of asylum-seekers.
The incident comes just days after another boat with around 200 people on board went down in the Indian Ocean as it made its way to Australia.
Rescuers managed to save 110 people and 17 bodies were recovered from Thursday’s capsize, but no other survivors have been found.
Three merchant vessels, including the MV Bison Express, a Philippines-flagged livestock carrier, were on the scene of Wednesday’s disaster, which happened in Indonesian waters.
AMSA said two Australian navy ships and a spotter aircraft capable of dropping liferaft were also helping with the rescue effort in conditions described as “fair, not ideal.”
In a statement, Australian Customs and Border Protection said police received a satellite phone call early Wednesday from the vessel.
AMSA “initiated an immediate response to the report and continues to coordinate the search and rescue effort”.
Details were passed to the Indonesian search and rescue authority Basarnas, which said it received a report that the generator was broken and the boat was taking on water.
A photo from the MV Bison posted on the AMSA website showed a small, basic-looking boat crowded with people on its decks, apparently taken before it capsized.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation said most of the passengers were believed to be Afghans and there were women and children on board, though this could not be confirmed.
The accident is the latest in a series of refugee boat disasters in recent years, as unseaworthy, overloaded vessels packed with desperate migrants struggle to reach Australia.
Most boats originate in Indonesia, but there has been a recent 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.
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 Malaysia was not a signatory to UN refugee conventions.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott, who supports processing on the Pacific island of Nauru and turning boats back when possible, again ruled out the Malaysian solution Wednesday.
In response, Gillard pushed for a private members bill by independent MP Rob Oakeshott which would allow an immigration minister to designate any nation as an “offshore assessment country” if it was party to the Bali Process.
The Bali Process is a regional cooperative framework for dealing with asylum-seekers involving more than 40 countries.
Gillard offered, as a gesture of compromise, to re-open a detention centre on Nauru while pressing ahead with her Malaysia deal if the opposition agreed to vote for the Oakeshott bill.