CANBERRA, Australia — Police are investigating reports that five Sri Lankan asylum seekers were lost at sea after leaving their stricken boat to board a makeshift raft in an attempt to reach Australian islands in the Indian Ocean, an official said on Monday.
Australian Federal Police and government officials were interviewing 59 asylum seekers who were rescued from the same boat last week and delivered Monday to an immigration detention centre at Christmas Island, an Australian territory near Indonesia, Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor said in a statement.
Some of the passengers said five men from the boat were missing at sea after they left in a makeshift raft Wednesday in an attempt to reach the Cocos Islands, southwest of Christmas Island.
“If it is established that the passengers are missing, presumed perished at sea, the matter will be reported to the Western Australian Coroner,” O’Connor said, referring to the judge responsible for determining the cause of deaths in the Western Australia state jurisdiction.
Australian authorities were informed on April 30 that the asylum seekers’ boat had run out of fuel 144 miles (232 kilometres) north of the Cocos Islands, the statement said.
A Panamanian merchant ship responded that day by providing fuel, food and water. The Panamanian crew reported to Australian rescue authorities that the boat appeared seaworthy and no further requests for help were made, the statement said.
When the boat failed to reach the Cocos Islands, an Australian search aircraft was launched and found it.
Australian authorities alerted a Russian merchant ship that rescued the 59 passengers on Friday 184 miles (296 kilometres) west of Cocos Islands.
The survivors said their boat had again run out of fuel and the five men had set out on a raft made from life jackets and inflatable tire tubes to find help.
Australia deployed four aircraft to search the area on Saturday. The searchers found life jackets and tire tubes but no sign of life, the statement said.
The Australian Greens, a minor opposition party, questioned why Australian authorities did not go to the boat’s aid sooner and called for a review of Australia’s monitoring and interception protocols involving boats carrying asylum seekers.
“Something is not working right when we know a boat was there and two weeks later five people are dead,” Greens Sen. Sarah Hanson-Young told reporters.
The apparent deaths follow the ill-fated voyage of another boat that sank off the Cocos Islands in November last year, killing 12 asylum seekers.