An eight-year-old boy who lost 21 members of his family is one of the few survivors of an overcrowded boat that sank off Indonesia on its way to Australia.

More than 350 mostly Iraqi asylum seekers died during 20 hours in the water after the vessel capsized and broke up. Just 44 were rescued.

Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said: "This is a tragedy of monumental proportions." He said the boat - bound for Christmas Island - was built to carry about 150.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said it had been expecting such a disaster because of "the way the people smugglers pack these boats".


More than 20 people had refused to board the boat before it left Sumatra because they felt it was too dangerous. The refugees were mostly Iraqis, but included Iranians, Afghans, Palestinians and Algerians.

Survivors with broken limbs and coral cuts were treated in hospital in Bogor, south of Jakarta, and discharged to a community hall.

"What we are focusing on right now is the medical help, the counsel-ling - I mean, they are severely traumatised," said Richard Danziger, IOM's head in Indonesia.

He said it was too early to speculate on their future status.

An Indonesian Navy spokesman said no official search had been launched for more survivors because so much time had passed since the ship sank.

Another boatload of about 220 asylum seekers, most saying they were from Afghanistan, arrived off Christmas Island at the weekend.

Under tough new immigration controls, most asylum seekers arriving by boat are denied the right to set foot on Australian soil and are sent to remote Pacific Islands for processing.