UN refugee agency shocked by asylum shipwreck

15th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

The UN refugee agency on Wednesday expressed shock at the death of at least 27 asylum-seekers in a shipwreck off Australia, warning that too many people were losing their lives while fleeing hardship.

"We are today expressing our deep shock and sorrow at the tragic loss of lives after the sinking of a vessel presumed to be carrying asylum-seekers off Christmas Island," said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

"We are encouraged by reports that quick rescue action saved the lives of as many as 41 passengers. But dozens more drowned as the boat attempted to land and was engulfed in powerful waves crashing the boat into rocks," she added.

Horrified witnesses watched helplessly from nearby cliffs as the wooden boat, which was thought to be carrying people from Iran and Iraq, broke up on the coastline of the Indian Ocean island.

Christmas Island, 2,650 kilometres (1,650 miles) northwest of Perth, has Australia's main immigration detention centre where all asylum seekers arriving by boat are taken.

Thousands of people from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have arrived there this year, often crossing from Indonesia.

The UNHCR acknowledged that the capacity of countries in Asia, around the Mediterranean, the Caribbean or the Gulf of Aden to host those fleeing was being sorely tested.

But it insisted that most of them were found to be refugees escaping oppression or violence.

"We believe that far too many people are tragically losing their lives as they take desperate measures to escape conflict, persecution and poverty," Fleming added.

© 2010 AFP

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