Aussies search for migrant-filled boat in distress

Australian rescue crews were trying to help a boat in distress and crowded with asylum seekers off the coast of Indonesia on Wednesday, one day after the leaders of Australia and Indonesia agreed to strengthen maritime ties as part of a bid to combat people smuggling.

The boat issued a distress call early Wednesday morning, and was believed to have up to 180 people on board, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said. The Australian navy ship HMAS Wollongong found the boat south of Indonesia, but poor weather was preventing rescuers from boarding the vessel, the maritime authority said.

"The boat has rung, said it's in distress, that it's taking on water," Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare told Australian Broadcasting Corp. Radio earlier Wednesday. "Whenever you have a call like that, you take it seriously."

The debate over how to cope with the increasing flow of asylum seekers has intensified in Australia since two boats carrying Australia-bound migrants capsized in the last two weeks. More than 90 people are believed to have been killed when the boats sank in the Indian Ocean between Indonesia and the Australian territory of Christmas Island, where Australia runs an immigration detention center.

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met in the Northern Territory capital of Darwin on Tuesday to discuss how to handle the politically charged problem, along with economic and trade issues.

Gillard said Australia would work with Indonesia's maritime search and rescue agency to help strengthen its communication abilities with vessels during sea disasters and would look into an exchange program of search and rescue specialists.

"I welcome the strong cooperation we have with Indonesia on people smuggling, including Indonesia's law enforcement efforts against people smuggling syndicates," Gillard told reporters on Tuesday.

Yudhoyono said he and Gillard had discussed the importance of the Bali Process, an Asia-Pacific body against people smuggling and human trafficking.

"Indonesia is also a victim of acts of illegal people smuggling," he said. "We hope that we can prevent as far as possible acts of people smuggling in our region."

Australia is a common destination for boats carrying asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and other poor or war-ravaged countries. Many asylum seekers travel first to Indonesia and then try to complete the journey to Australia aboard rickety, overcrowded fishing boats. The boats generally head for Christmas Island, which is much closer to Indonesia than to the Australian mainland.

Both the ruling center-left Labor Party and the conservative opposition believe sending boat arrivals to a third country to have their refugee claims assessed will help curb smuggling attempts. But they disagree on where to send the asylum seekers. Last week, a bill that would have allowed Australia to deport asylum seekers to another country was rejected in the Senate, after scraping through the House of Representatives.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, left, and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard hold a press conference at the Northern Territory Parliament House Tuesday, July 3, 2012, in Darwin, Australia. The leaders of Australia and Indonesia agreed Tuesday to strengthen maritime ties as part of a bid to combat people smuggling, after two boats carrying Australia-bound migrants capsized and left dozens dead in the past two weeks.  (AP Photo/Daniel Hartley-Allen, Pool) Enlargephoto

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, left, and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard hold a press conference at the Northern Territory Parliament House Tuesday, July 3, 2012, in Darwin, Australia. The leaders of Australia and Indonesia agreed Tuesday to strengthen maritime ties as part of a bid to combat people smuggling, after two boats carrying Australia-bound migrants capsized and left dozens dead in the past two weeks. (AP Photo/Daniel Hartley-Allen, Pool)