Over 160 people are feared dead after an unseaworthy boat packed with asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iran sank off the coast of Indonesia yesterday. The tragedy again sparked debate over asylum seeker policy and offshore v. onshore processing.

There are differing accounts of survivor numbers, with Indonesian authorities saying 34 people are confirmed safe — including two small boys, while Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said 87 people were rescued by Indonesian fisherman. The boat was packed with between 215-250 asylum seekers — including 40 children — although it had an official capacity of just 100.

Survivors spoke of their escape to news.com.au:

“Khadzim Huzen, a 30-year-old Afghan, told AP that after the big wave hit, the ship started tipping into the water, and everyone rushed to the front. A fight broke out for life jackets.

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There were only 25, he said, and nine already had been taken by the crew.

‘In the end, as everything was being swallowed up by the water, we just grabbed hold of anything we could,’ he said. ‘We formed small groups in the water and tried to help each other stay afloat.'”

Tom Allard in the Canberra Times explains how people smugglers sent the asylum seekers on their deadly voyage:

“Many of the asylum-seekers flew from Dubai to Jakarta, where Indonesian officials are said to be ready for the migrants to arrive, charging them each $500 to pass through the airport without visas.

They arrived over several days and were taken in four buses on a 23-hour journey to an unknown location on Java’s south coast.

The modus operandi highlights the increased confidence of the smugglers and the huge demand for their services.”

Cardinal George Pell, who was openly critical of John Howard’s treatment of asylum seekers in the early 2000s spoke publicly yesterday about the need for the government to adopt offshore processing.

“The people-smugglers are evil and irresponsible money-makers prepared to risk the destruction of their passengers. These deaths are a tragedy,” Pell told The Australian. “It’s difficult to see any alternative to the government and opposition promptly agreeing on effective offshore deterrents. Australians do not want more tragedies like this.”

Time to focus on the kingpins in the people smuggling war, not the bit players, writes Susan Metcalfe (author of The Pacific Solution) in The Age:

“I understand that it can be difficult to catch the heads of operations in other countries, and that corrupt officials often collude in smuggling operations. But there is no excuse for Australian laws that do not discriminate between different levels of involvement and do not allow room for leniency where it is warranted.

Like many other asylum policies and laws created for political reasons over the past decade, this is simply another that is ineffective, unfair and has no logical basis.

Both parties should now support investing more heavily in tracking those dealers who run the people-smuggling shows in the region.

If the Coalition genuinely wants a policy that deters boat arrivals and ensures the safety and rights of refugees, it should work with the government to ensure the security of anyone returned to Malaysia.”

The Coalition must help the government pass changes to the Migration Act to allow offshore processing so that these deadly boat voyages end, says The Australian‘s editorial.

“The people-smugglers are responsible for the deaths, but the onus is on Australia to do everything possible to stop the boats.”