EXTREMELY rough conditions are making it difficult for an Australian Navy vessel to help a boat carrying asylum seekers.

The boat, in Indonesian waters about 96km south-west of Java, is thought to have between 130 and 180 people on board.

>>See a map of the location

HMAS Wollongong located the boat about 10am on Wednesday while en route from Singapore to Christmas Island.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said HMAS Wollongong crew members had been unable to board the boat because of rough sea and adverse weather conditions.

There were no signs the boat, which was heading slowly towards Christmas Island under its own power, was in imminent danger, he said.

Early indications the boat had turned around to head back to Indonesia proved incorrect.

The Navy will board the boat when conditions settle, Mr Clare said.

Another Navy vessel, HMAS Leeuwin, was expected to arrive at the scene about dusk.

"Obviously if the vessel in these conditions was to capsize then action would be taken immediately to rescue people ... if they go into the water," Mr Clare said.

The Australian Maritime Authority received a call from a satellite phone on the boat about 4.30am indicating was taking on water.

"That's not surprising in conditions like sea state six - very rough weather, water coming on board, waves crashing into the boat," Mr Clare said. "You can imagine the terror of people on the boat when it's taking on water."

Mr Clare said the condition of the boat would not be known until Nay personnel were able to get on board.
He said it would be up to the captain of HMAS Wollongong whether the boat was towed to Indonesia or Christmas Island.

At least six boats carrying more than 300 asylum seekers have been intercepted making the perilous trip from Indonesia to Australia since Wednesday last week when a boat sank 200km north of Christmas Island.

That incident, in which four people died, sparked extraordinary scenes in Canberra as federal politicians spent two exhaustive days across parliament's two chambers debating legislation designed to stop the flow of boats.

But their efforts to break the policy stalemate proved to be in vain, with parliament rising for the six-week winter break without a resolution to the problem.

The Senate voted down independent MP Rob Oakeshott's migration bill 39-29 on Thursday night after it had survived a narrow 74-72 vote in the lower house late on Wednesday.

Mr Oakeshott's Migration Legislation Amendment Bill would have allowed Australia to send asylum seekers offshore to member countries of the Bali Process, including Malaysia and Nauru.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has assembled a three-person expert panel, chaired by former defence chief Angus Houston, in a desperate bid to reach a policy outcome.

The panel, which also comprises refugee advocate Paris Aristotle and former foreign affairs secretary Michael L'Estrange, has been charged with compiling a report before parliament resumes on August 14.

Up to 90 people are thought to have died when a boat capsized north of Christmas Island two weeks ago.

More to come.

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