'Starving asylum seekers throw dead shipmates overboard'
The bodies of nearly 100 asylum seekers on a boat bound for Australia were thrown overboard in the ocean off Sri Lanka by their starving shipmates, according to reports received by Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor.
Sri Lankan authorities are expected to brief the Australian government about the tragic circumstances surrounding the rescue of 32 emaciated survivors, who ran out of food on their journey from Burma and had been adrift in the ocean for two months.
The survivors told their rescuers that they had to throw the bodies of 98 others overboard after they died of starvation and dehydration, Sri Lanka's police said.
The Sri Lankan Navy rescues starving Burmese asylum seekers who were on their way to Indonesia and Australia. The survivors threw the bodies of their dead shipmates overboard. Photo: Sri Lanka Navy
The rescue took place on Saturday, about 465 kilometres off Sri Lanka's eastern coast.
The Sri Lankan navy released photographs of some of the emaciated survivors, who were receiving medical attention after their ordeal.
The survivors said they were heading to Indonesia and Australia to seek asylum, and identified themselves as Muslims from a border village between Burma and Bangladesh, police said.
Mr O'Connor said he was yet to receive a full briefing on the situation, but the reported deaths underlined the danger of getting on people smugglers' boats and making the perilous journey to Australia.
''It is the people smugglers who have lured people onto unseaworthy vessels. It's the people smugglers who peddle lies to these people, take their life savings, sometimes sadly take their lives. That's where I target the blame,'' Mr O'Connor told Fairfax Radio.
Mr O'Connor, who was sworn in as Immigration Minister earlier this month, said he was determined to implement the Houston panel recommendations on asylum seekers, made in August last year.
''[The panel] put together 22 recommendations and I think it's really now time for, certainly the opposition, to have a re-think about their opposition to some of those recommendations because I just think we've got to take the politics out of this, focus on what we can do to prevent people dying at sea in this manner,'' he said.
''Whatever may or may not have worked in the past, it's not going to work today, and I think therefore we really need to look at how we implement those policies because I do not want to see, as minister, any further lives lost at sea.''
Sri Lankan police spokesman Prishantha Jayakody told Reuters that the survivors told police they had carried food and water for only one month, but they had been at sea for two months when their engine stalled.
''Their captain and 97 others have died due to dehydration and starvation. They also said they had thrown the dead bodies into the sea,'' Mr Jayakody said.