SYDNEY - The asylum seekers whose drowned bodies were left in the Indian Ocean by Australian authorities are believed to have been Hazaras fleeing Afghanistan.
As the prime minister, Julia Gillard, and the immigration minister, Brendan O’Connor, defended the decision to leave the bodies in the water on Monday to tend to other asylum seekers’ boats it has emerged those who died were likely to be from the mainly Shia Afghan ethnic group.
Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul said it was believed the boat had travelled from Indonesia and his contacts in the country said it was carrying Hazaras. Customs and Border Protection made the decision on Monday not to retrieve the bodies of up to 60 asylum seekers who drowned about 120km from Christmas Island.
The decision came after a five-day operation which was punctuated by delays in getting to the boat after it was first spotted, and in launching a full-scale search.
A spokeswoman said officers were tending to other jobs in the area, including a second distressed asylum seeker boat, but refugee advocates have criticised the move, saying Australia had the resources to retrieve the bodies as well.
Gillard has backed the decision to leave the bodies in the water saying it was a tough decision but authorities were focused on saving lives. “As border command has made clear, they always put the highest priority on saving lives,” she said in Brisbane on Tuesday.
She said the “dreadful tragedy” was a reminder of how dangerous the journey to Australia can be by boat. “I think it breaks everybody’s heart to see that loss of life,” Gillard said.
O’Connor also said rescue took priority over recovery of bodies. “Ideally you would look to do both,” he told ABC radio, adding that Customs and Border Protection personnel always treated people with dignity. “I have seen acts of valour by our personnel which deserve extraordinary commendation,” he said.
When asked why the government did not launch its own retrieval mission, O’Connor said it was a matter for the home affairs minister, Jason Clare.