SYDNEY – The number of asylum seekers believed killed when their boat smashed into rocky cliffs along an Australian island rose to 48 on Monday, as the prime minister warned that those still missing may never be found.
Thirty bodies have been recovered since a rickety boat packed with Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish asylum seekers smashed into the rocks on Christmas Island last week and broke apart in stormy seas. Forty-two people were rescued from the churning surf, but officials believe many more were swept away in the strong currents, or sank to the ocean floor.
Rescue workers have been interviewing survivors to help determine exactly how many people were on board so they can clarify how many are still missing.
On Monday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said it appears about 90 asylum seekers were on the boat, based on the latest information from the Australian Federal Police.
"That does mean, of course, that we are still not able to account for around 18 people on the boat," Gillard told reporters in Canberra. "But I do say that we may never know the total number with certainty."
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said Saturday that the search for survivors had switched to a search for bodies in the waters surrounding remote Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. But Gillard warned Monday that those still missing may never be found.
"We are, of course, talking about very rough seas, very rocky and difficult coastline, and so it may be that there are bodies of people who traveled on the boat that are never recovered," she said. "So that is obviously very, very grim news."
Australia is a top destination for asylum seekers hoping to start new lives after escaping from poor, war-ravaged countries. In recent years, many refugee hopefuls from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Myanmar have flown to Indonesia and then continued on to Australia by sea, in rickety, jam-packed boats that have few provisions and no safety gear.
Asylum seekers who are intercepted by officials are generally sent to an immigration detention center on Christmas Island, or other detention centers on the Australian mainland.