Australia apologises for repeated breach of Indonesian waters

Canberra officials say navy made 'positional errors', amid campaign to stop asylum seeker boats

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 January, 2014, 9:04am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 January, 2014, 9:04am

The Australian government said on Friday that it had apologised unreservedly to Jakarta after its navy “inadvertently” violated Indonesian waters, but vowed to pursue a hardline policy to halt asylum-seeker boats.

“We deeply regret these events,” Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told a press conference.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Thursday night offered her Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa “an unqualified apology on behalf of the Australian government for inadvertently entering Indonesia’s territorial waters”, Morrison said.

She also gave “an assurance that such a breach of Indonesian territorial waters would not re-occur”.

Morrison said Australia’s embassy in Jakarta would make a formal apology on Friday.

He said the government received information on Wednesday that Australian authorities had “inadvertently” entered Indonesian waters on several occasions, in breach of Australian government policy.

“I should stress this occurred unintentionally and without knowledge or sanction by the Australian government,” he said.

Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, who heads the military-led Operation Sovereign Borders to stop asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by sea, refused to detail the border violations for “operational reasons”.

Under the new conservative government, asylum seekers arriving by boat are sent to Pacific islands camps for processing with no chance of settlement in Australia, while boats intercepted at sea can be turned back to Indonesia.

The policy has angered Indonesia which has suggested it could infringe its sovereignty.

However Morrison insisted there would be no change in Australia’s policy.

“The government will continue its operation to stop the boats,” he said. “We will ensure the issues that led to the inadvertent breaches of Indonesian territorial sovereignty are rectified and do not re-occur.”

But he added: “What the people smugglers and anyone they are trying to get on a boat need to understand is that this Australian government will take the actions necessary to protect Australian sovereignty to stop the boats.

He refused to comment on repeated media reports of Australia towing boats back close to Indonesian waters.

Campbell said the breaches involved “the passage of a vessel or vessels on several occasions”. “Positional errors have been made in the movement of our vessels,” he said. “The personnel on these vessels believe they were at all times operating outside Indonesian waters.

“I believe our people were acting in good faith,” he added.

The chief of staff and the head of the border protection agency would review the violations, Morrison said.

The apology came two days after Morrison announced that no asylum seeker boats had arrived in Australia for nearly a month.

A 2012 photo released by Indonesia shows an Australian navy ship (left) shadowing a boat believed to be carrying refugees. Photo: AFP

The numbers of arrivals has declined by more than 80 per cent since the Liberal-National coalition government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott won power in September.

Australia has refused to say whether any approaching boats have been turned back towards Indonesia, traditionally a key transit point for asylum seekers fleeing countries such as Afghanistan and Iran.

The stop-the-boats-policy has been characterised by a near blackout on events at sea.

Campbell said Wednesday the public would be notified of serious incidents such as loss of life, but that information on operations would not be released to avoid giving people-smugglers a tactical advantage.