SYDNEY (Reuters) - Rescuers have pulled six people from the sea off Indonesia but authorities have grave fears for more than 140 more after a suspected refugee boat disappeared on its way to Australia, Australia's Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said on Thursday.
Indonesian authorities are coordinating the search for the boat, which first reported to be in distress on Wednesday in Indonesia's Sunda Strait, with several merchant ships and rescue helicopters at the scene, around 42 nautical miles off Java.
"Six people have been plucked from the sea. We have grave fears for a lot more," Clare told reporters in Sydney, adding authorities believed the boat was carrying 150 people.
"Six people have survived. Potentially dozens and dozens haven't."
Refugees seeking asylum in Australia often set sail from Indonesia heading for Australia's Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island in dangerous and overcrowded boats, with the help of people smugglers.
Since 2001, almost 1,000 people have died at sea while attempting to reach Australia on overcrowded and often unseaworthy refugee boats from Indonesia.
A person on board the unidentified boat had contacted Australian rescue authorities by telephone on Wednesday, saying the vessel had engine trouble and needed assistance.
A search by Indonesian authorities failed to locate the boat on Wednesday, but a merchant vessel early on Thursday reported it had seen people in the water and was attempting to recover survivors, Australia's Maritime Safety Authority said.
Refugee policy and border protection are hot-button issues in Australia, despite the fact the country only receives a small number of the world's asylum seekers each year.
The U.N. refugee agency said Australia received 11,800 claims for asylum in 2011, compared with 441,000 claims globally, with 327,000 of those claims in Europe.
Australia is working on plans to reopen refugee detention centers in the Pacific islands nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to deter refugee boats from reaching Australia and prevent sinkings.
(Reporting by James Grubel and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Michael Perry)