Australian authorities likely knew a doomed asylum seeker boat was headed for Christmas Island before it crashed, a refugee advocate says, as others blame government policies for the disaster.
It is estimated that up to 50 people may have died when the wooden fishing vessel slammed into rocks on Christmas Island in rough seas this morning.
Rescue crews and locals are still trying to save those who were thrown into the ocean off Flying Fish Cove, but it is unclear how many people were aboard the boat in the first place.
Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre says an investigation is needed to determine how the boat came so close to landing at Christmas Island.
"We have a huge surveillance operation. We've got AFP officers in Indonesia who ride the ferries between Malaysia and Indonesia who arrest people alongside the Indonesian police in hostels," she said.
"We have air surveillance, we have water surveillance, we have a very efficient border security operation out there.
"These people are not political. They are just there to see who's in the water, who needs help, how close they are to Australia and they absolutely know who is approaching our shoreline."
Ms Curr says if border security officials were aware of the vessel they should never have allowed it to approach Christmas Island in such rough seas.
"What happened that they allowed this boat to head towards Christmas Island, knowing there's a three to five-metre swell which would make it impossible for such a fragile fishing boat to land safely," she said.
It is understood some survivors have been rescued by boat and taken aboard a nearby Navy ship, while some of the bodies recovered are reportedly being taken by boat to Ethel Beach on the other side of the island where waters are calmer.
Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition told PM that bad weather may have made it harder for authorities to stop the boat as it approached Christmas Island.
"Generally they're monitored very closely, but the weather on Christmas Island is appalling. There are reports of three-metre waves and almost zero visibility," he said.
"I'm not blaming anyone - Customs for not intercepting this particular boat - but I do think the fact there isn't a welcome refugee policy, that the Government has people smuggling laws in place which make it less likely that people on boats are willing to contact Australian authorities and to rendezvous.
"But if the Australian Government again was willing to be proactive and to make it clear that people would be taken safely to Christmas Island, and the numbers they could contact so the rendezvous could be made safely, then these kinds of incidents would be far less likely."
"People are completely devastated. I mean people on the island watched helplessly as the boat smashed against the rocks and people actually drowned before their eyes," he said.
"People on the island are devastated and the word's already gone into the detention centres and the people there are devastated as well.
"But I think what it does tell us is that government policy has got to change.
"If asylum seekers were processed in Indonesia, if they were resettled out of Indonesia, then far fewer people would be getting on boats trying to get to Australia."
Ms Curr says she has been in touch with friends on the island and she says they are distraught.
"People are weeping and upset because there were people standing on top of the cliffs seeing this whole tragedy unfold and they were unable to do anything about it," she said.
Ms Curr says survivors of the crash are likely to be placed in the island's detention facilities.
"If they're families they'll likely be taken to the construction camp. If they're single men, they're likely to wind up in tents in the detention centre," she said.
But she has urged the Government to show compassion.
"These people will be deeply traumatised, some will have lost their children, some will have lost their wives. For God's sake let's show some pity," she said.
Meanwhile, Russell Payne, who has lived on Christmas Island for 20 years and is a former president of the Island's Chamber of Commerce, says local residents have dreaded something like this happening.
"In my view this is a direct result of the change of policy of the Labor Party. They're responsible for the boats coming over," he said.
"One of the dreads we had before the fact these people were coming out into the ocean and risking their lives, the biggest worries we always had... Christmas Island would have to front up to the trauma of dead bodies and the community having to come to grips with that situation."
In the wake of the tragedy the United Nations refugee agency says it is a reminder of the dangers faced by people fleeing persecution and human rights violations.
The UNHCR says it reinforces the need for countries to cooperate to find ways to prevent vulnerable people taking perilous journeys by boat.
Australia's Border Protection says the rescue operation is ongoing and its paramount priority is the safety of all involved.
Refugee Action Coalition: “Government anti-refugee policy is responsible for the tragedy on Christmas Island.”
“Our heart goes out to the people and their families of the asylum seekers who have lost their lives, so close to the possibility of protection," said Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition.
“But the blame lies with the Australian government. If the Australian government was willing to properly process asylum seekers in Indonesia and resettle successful refugees in Australia, then far fewer people would get on boats to travel to Australia.
“The government needs to stop pushing Indonesia to harass and detain asylum seekers. The intimidation in Indonesia is itself pushing people to leave Indonesia to find safety.
“The government also needs to drop its people smuggling laws so that boats travelling to Australian would be able and willing to notify Australian authorities of their travels and arrange to rendezvous safely.
“The government recently increased its quota of resettled UNHCR refugees from Indonesia to around 500 but as of the beginning of November only 50 had been resettled from Indonesia. No amount of talk about a regional processing centre will alter the realities for asylum seekers.
“Unless the government changes its policies and adopts a welcome refugee policy there will be more tragedies.”
“The race to the bottom on refugee policy between the Labor government and the Opposition is costing lives – inside and outside of detention. Australia urgently needs a welcome refugee policy,” said Rintoul.