Families of shipwrecked immigrants sue Australia

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Media captionDozens of people died when the boat broke up, as the BBC's Jon Donnison explains

Relatives of dozens of asylum seekers who were killed in a shipwreck off Christmas Island in 2010 have launched a legal case against Australia.

Lawyer George Newhouse said the government knew that people were at risk out at sea, but did not do enough to prevent their deaths.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the lawsuit was "shameful".

About 50 asylum seekers, mostly from Iraq and Iran, died when their boat broke up on rocks.

Mr Newhouse's case, lodged at the New South Wales Supreme Court, alleges the government failed in its duty of care.

He said in a statement that the government "knew, or should have known, that there were vulnerable men, women and children that were on the high seas".

Officials "took insufficient steps to look out for them", he said.

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Image caption Families were flown to Australia for the funerals of their loved ones in early 2011

The boat crashed into rocks near Christmas Island on 15 December 2010.

Coastguards rescued 42 survivors but up to 50 people are believed to have drowned.

The passengers were believed to have been mainly Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish asylum seekers making their way to Australia through Indonesia.

Australian jailed an Iranian people-smuggler for 14 years in 2012 for organising asylum boats including the Christmas island vessel.

Mr Morrison criticised the decision to bring the case as offensive.

"Sure, people have the right to bring cases to court - we are a free country - but they have to be accountable for the claims," he said.

"This is like someone who has been saved from a fire suing the firemen."

An eight-month coroner's inquiry into the disaster blamed the people-smugglers for causing the crash.

But the coroner also criticised the government for not having adequate rescue facilities on the island.

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