17032015Tue

Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 2pm

Australian officials "too busy" to recover bodies of drowned asylum seekers

Australian authorities say they are "too busy" to recover the bodies of dozens of asylum seekers who drowned after their boat sank, minutes from shore on Sunday.

Thirteen bodies were spotted during an air and sea search for the boat near Christmas Island, northwest of the Australian mainland.

The boat was believed to have been carrying about 55 men, women and children when it capsized.

Australian customs officials say they will not make any attempt to retrieve the bodies as customs vessels and aircraft are involved in a number of "high priority operations" elsewhere around Australia.

"Our priority in those operations remains the protection of life, responding to other vessels which may require assistance and preventing further loss of life," a Customs spokeswoman told the Associated Press on Monday.

"When those operations have been concluded and there is no further risk to life, Border Protection Command will endeavour to recover, where possible, any bodies which may be relocated."

The spokeswoman added that the likelihood of successful recovery would diminish over time.

Asked whether the bodies would eventually be recovered, the spokeswoman said she was "not sure".

"Where it is possible, of course we will endeavour to locate and recover the bodies," she said.

"But at this stage, I don't have a timeframe on that."

Former diplomat Tony Kevin, who has authored a book on the plight of asylum seekers to Australia, told The Age newspaper that there needed to be an urgent inquiry into why it took so long for the Border Protection Command to send a boat to to aid the flailing vessel.

"I contend that if they’d taken prompt interception or assistance action by a surface vessel on Wednesday afternoon, those 55 people would still be alive," he said.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the time had come for a policy overhaul.

"We have the harshest policy that this country has ever had on asylum seekers at the moment, and yet people are still coming," she told ABC News 24.

More than 11,000 asylum seekers - including scores of Sri Lankans and Vietnamese nationals - have arrived in Australia in 2013 alone.

Many of the 167 vessels are turned away by Brother Protection vessels whilst others are taken to the christmas Island detention centre to be processed, where they remain for months on end.

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