Australia says asylum boats 'god-awful' problem

Asylum-seekers drowning on the treacherous boat journey to Australia presented a "god-awful" problem, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said Wednesday as another ship carrying scores of people called for help.

Speaking after four people were reported dead after a dramatic sea rescue off the Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island late Tuesday, Clare said the government was looking at options to prevent people making the voyage.

"This is a wretchedly difficult area and it has been poisoned by politics," Clare said of boatpeople.

"If we are going to fix this god-awful problem then we need to work together."

Australia has struggled to stem an influx of asylum-seekers arriving by boat, with record numbers turning up in 2012 and more than 13,000 so far in 2013.

Hundreds have drowned making the journey and Canberra's plans to send asylum-seekers to remote Pacific islands for processing has so far failed to stop the numbers from increasing.

In Tuesday's rescue, authorities pulled 144 survivors from the surging waters, but they also recovered four bodies after the ship carrying an estimated 150 people capsized and sank.

Another boat, carrying some 80 people, issued a distress call on Wednesday, prompting two Australian navy and Customs boats and a merchant vessel to race to its location 94 nautical miles northeast of Christmas Island.

It was not known when any of the vessels would reach the asylum-seekers, but a spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said weather conditions were "not great".

Boatpeople are a sensitive issue in Australia and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is expected to soon announce a new-look policy on the matter which is set to be key in elections due this year.

He said Wednesday the government had "a responsibility to adjust and change our policies on asylum-seekers in response to new circumstances" and was also looking to regional cooperation with countries such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

"The bottom line is this: Australia so far has had a reasonably generous approach to the assessment of asylum-seekers from around the world," he said.

"Action at the global level, the regional level, the national level, that's the correct response to a problem which is not uniquely Australia's."

The new policy will reportedly ensure Australia's refugee tribunals take revised country assessments into account when looking at asylum claims from people from Iran, Afghanistan and Vietnam.

It comes after Foreign Minister Bob Carr said many people seeking asylum, particularly from Iran, were economic migrants, not refugees.

In Tuesday's tragedy, the boat capsized as it was being escorted in heavy weather by two Australian navy ships to Christmas Island, after issuing a distress call earlier in the day.

The boats pulled survivors from the water as a military aircraft dropped life rafts.

Rear Admiral David Johnston, commander of Border Protection Command, said the 30-metre boat had not been as "jam packed" as other vessels that had been intercepted and appeared quite solid.

But he said the vessel, which was carrying men, women and children from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, sank quickly once it overturned.

On Friday a boat carrying 97 asylum-seekers sank, claiming the life of a baby boy and leaving eight others missing.