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Refugee shipwreck an 'unspeakable tragedy'

15 December 2010, 20:11

Sao Paulo - A horrific refugee boat accident off an Australian island in which at least 27 people died was an "unspeakable tragedy," Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said on Wednesday during a visit to Brazil.

"I think all of our hearts are ripped apart by things like this when they happen," he told AFP in Sao Paulo after learning of the accident off Christmas Island.

Australian officials said 27 refugees including children, died early on Wednesday after their wooden boat shattered in violent seas off the island.

Medics said the death toll could go as high as 50.

Australian customs officials said 42 people from the group on the boat - thought to be from Iraq and Iran - survived.

Thousands of asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have made their way to Australia this year, often on leaky boats from Indonesia.

Christmas Island, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean some 2 650km northwest of Perth, has Australia's main immigration detention centre and is where all asylum seekers arriving by boat are taken.

Canberra is pushing for a regional processing centre to be built in East Timor in the hope of deterring refugees from making the perilous sea journey to Australia, which has claimed hundreds of lives in the past decade.

Rudd, though, would not be drawn on what policy changes Australia might make in light of Wednesday's accident.

"On a day like today it's important simply to reflect on the human dimensions of the tragedy and the suffering," he said.

"The policy settings of the government are clear.... It's not a day to debate policy, it's not a day to go into the details of what's occurred. And this particular tragedy, that will be dealt with the relevant authorities in their investigation," he said.



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