Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s policy to turn back asylum seekers has failed a significant test, with 63 boat people arriving on Christmas Island after the government blinked in a mid-ocean standoff with Indonesia.
The backdown will be seen as a loss of face for the Coalition, which vowed before the election that Australian authorities would not act as a taxi service for refugees. It may also encourage other people-smuggling syndicates to try their hand.
Although Indonesia had agreed to Australia’s request to take back asylum seekers on two recent occasions, critics of the government’s turn-back policy had predicted Jakarta would eventually refuse to accept boats turned back by the Australian navy. That day came on Friday, when Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa outlined a harder-line doctrine and refused to take the asylum seekers unless there was a threat to life.
As Labor said the turn-back policy was ”in tatters” and accused the Abbott government of inept diplomacy, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison tried to play down the stand-off in a statement issued on Saturday. He said that overnight on Friday the Indonesians has advised Australian officials that they were ”reviewing” the request to take the boat back.
He said he welcomed Indonesia’s ”review”, but ”in the best interests of the safety of the passengers and crew” he had ordered the asylum seekers to be taken to Christmas Island for ”rapid onward transfer to Manus Island or Nauru”.
However, Agus Barnas, a spokesman for Indonesia’s co-ordinating minister, Djoko Suyanto, said on Saturday: ”As far as I’m concerned, there is no review of the government of Indonesia’s position/standpoint on the refugees who wish to go to Australia.”
Agus Barnas said he had checked this with the country’s ambassador to Australia, who said the Indonesians had held a meeting after the incident and his orders from the minister had not changed.
Agus Barnas said Jakarta was reluctant to accept the most recent asylum seekers because the boat had been in working order when first approached by Australian navy vessel HMAS Ballarat.
”We don’t want Indonesia to be a dumping ground, but we don’t want Australia to accuse us of not doing anything. We want to respect Australia. At least for the time being, we will not accept them.”
The boat had been at the centre of a standoff between the two governments since Thursday when Australian ships had gone to the aid of the asylum seekers who had made a distress call.
On Saturday, Mr Abbott would not comment on Indonesia’s motives for refusing to take the asylum seekers back. But he said he did not accept that the government had ”surrendered” its policy to turn back the boats. ”We have a range of options at our disposal,” he said.
”We deserve the right to put into place all of the policies that we took to the election and one of the options that we reserve to ourselves is the option of turning boats around where it’s safe to do so and certainly that’s something which is very much alive.”
Mr Abbott said the relationship between his government and Indonesia was mutually respectful.
But opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles said Mr Abbott’s diplomacy had been inept. ”Turning back the boats is certainly not happening, and you’d have to say that to the extent to which it’s at the centre of their boat policy, their boat policy is in tatters,” he said.
An asylum seeker source told Fairfax Media that the people on the boat were from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and had been organised by people smugglers called Muzahir and Sher Ali.
He said people smugglers in West Java were talking about sending another boat within three days, or up to a week. The standoff led the co-ordinating minister, Djoko Suyanto, to assert that the country would never take refugees from Australia under similar circumstances.
An asylum seeker in Indonesia contacted Fairfax Media early on Saturday to say the boat had reached the Australian territory.
”I have friends on the boat,” the asylum seeker said in a text message, ”and yesterday he says, ‘my boat [has] reached’.”
With BIANCA HALL