Indonesia, Australia in asylum stand-off after 60 refugees picked up at sea

High seas stand-off adds to political tensions as Indonesia refuses to accept some 60 people seized by Australian warship south of Java

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 November, 2013, 10:34pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 November, 2013, 2:45am


Indonesia and Australia were locked in a high seas stand-off yesterday after Jakarta rejected attempts by an Australian warship to return scores of asylum seekers to the main Indonesian island of Java.

The row, which came with tensions already high between Jakarta and Canberra over a spying controversy, has prompted fresh questions about new Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's hardline asylum-seeker policies.

The Australian boat picked up some 60 would-be refugees south of Java, where many asylum seekers board rickety wooden vessels to try and reach Australia, on Thursday after a distress call, according to Indonesian officials. Attempts to transfer them to Indonesian custody were rebuffed.

Under Abbott's tough refugee policies, asylum-seekers arriving by unauthorised boats face the prospect of their vessels being turned back to Indonesia if it is safe to do so.

But Jakarta has previously voiced anger about the policies, and yesterday angrily rejected the idea the asylum seekers would be returned to Java. "The Indonesian government never agreed to such wishes or policies of Australia," Djoko Suyanto, co-ordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said in a text message.

"This has been conveyed since the time of (former Australian prime minister) Kevin Rudd, and there is no change of policy regarding asylum seekers wanting to go to Australia under the current Abbott government.

"Australia already has its own 'detention centres' in Nauru and PNG (Papua New Guinea). That's where the asylum seekers should be sent, not to Indonesia."

He also reportedly said that in previous cases where Indonesia had accepted asylum seekers picked up by Australian vessels, it was only when people were hurt or had drowned.

Thousands of asylum seekers, many from Iran and Afghanistan, board rundown wooden boats in Indonesia every year to try and make the perilous sea crossing to Australia, normally arriving at the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

Continued arrivals of boatpeople is a sensitive in Australia, and stopping the influx was a key issue at the September elections that brought Abbott to power.

Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, commander of Canberra's military-led effort to stop people-smuggling boats arriving, told reporters in Sydney that an Australian vessel went to the aid of an Indonesian boat 43 nautical miles south of Java.

"I am advised that all people have been accounted for," he said.

Agus Barnas, a senior Indonesian official at the co-ordinating ministry for political, justice and security affairs, reiterated Suyanto's tough stance, saying that Indonesia "rejects taking asylum seekers, that's our stance for the time being.

"We are still negotiating with Australia on this matter."

In Australia, Abbott faced questions about whether the stand-off signalled his hardline policies were a failure, but would only respond by saying that Canberra has "good and improving cooperation with Indonesia".

"Everyone in the official establishment of Indonesia understands that it is in Indonesia's national interest, just as much as it is in Australia's national interest, that the scourge of people smuggling be eliminated," he said.

Tensions between Jakarta and Canberra rocketed in the past week after The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported that Australian missions across Asia, including the one in Jakarta, were involved in a US-led spying network.