Australia dismisses 'offensive' sinking survivor claims

Australia dismisses 'offensive' sinking survivor claims

SYDNEY - Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on Monday dismissed as "offensive" questions over Australia's response to a refugee boat tragedy off Indonesia as he declared the country "shut" to asylum-seekers arriving by sea.

Morrison said a sinking on Friday in rough seas off Java, which claimed at least 36 lives, was a "chilling reminder of what can occur when you put your life in the hands of criminals" as he defended the new government's response to the disaster.

Some 28 people escaped alive but between 80 and 120 Middle Eastern asylum-seekers were estimated to have been on board, meaning dozens remain unaccounted for.

Fronting the media for the first time since the incident, Morrison said it had "occurred in Indonesia's search-and-rescue region, close - very close - to the Indonesian coast".

He emphatically rejected suggestions from survivors that repeated calls had been made to Australian authorities and that help was promised but never materialised.

"Australians working in our border protection and maritime agencies routinely put themselves at risk in responding to search and rescue incidents," Morrison told reporters.

"They respond with a professionalism, a selflessness and a sense of urgency that all Australians should be proud of and of which I am proud. Any suggestion otherwise is as offensive as it is wrong."

Air Marshal Mark Binskin, part of the government's military-led Operation Sovereign Borders aimed at halting asylum-seeker boats, said police were first contacted by Melbourne-based friends awaiting the vessel's arrival shortly before 8am on Friday.

"(They) reported that they had friends on a vessel that had departed Jakarta four days ago with 80 people on board," he told reporters.

"The caller reported the vessel had broken down, had no food or water, was sinking and that there were a number of unconscious people on board."

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