The HMAS Ballarat tried to turn a boat carrying 56 suspected asylum seekers back to Indonesia before the wooden vessel’s engine failed. Photo: Phil Oakley
Australia and Indonesia were involved in a mid-ocean stand-off in the early hours of Friday morning as a customs vessel tried unsuccessfully to return a boatload of rescued asylum seekers to a reluctant Indonesia.
Up to 56 asylum seekers were rescued from their wooden boat in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone by an Australian ship on Thursday and, rather than taking them to Christmas Island, the crew sought to return them to Indonesia.
Australian authorities are liaising with their Indonesian counterparts in relation to a vessel that has requested assistance as the vessel is within Indonesia’s Search and Rescue zone
A number of boatloads of asylum seekers have been returned in similar circumstances since the election of the Abbott government.
But late on Thursday night a spokesman for Djoko Suyanto, the Indonesian coordinating minister for Legal, Political and Security Affairs, told Fairfax Media: “At least for the time being we will not accept them, since we consider them to be asylum seekers”.
The spokesman, Agus Barnas, said negotiations were continuing into the early hours of Friday morning and, meanwhile, the asylum seekers were still on their wooden boat with an Australian customs vessel standing by.
Immigration minister Scott Morrison’s office confirmed the stand-off, releasing a one-line statement saying: “Australian authorities are liaising with their Indonesian counterparts in relation to a vessel that has requested assistance as the vessel is within Indonesia’s search and rescue zone”.
The Australian Customs department and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which coordinated the rescue earlier on Thursday, refused to comment.
An Indonesian government source said the incident was now being supervised by Indonesia’s high-powered Ministry for Politics,
Security, Law and Human Rights and the Foreign Affairs Ministry, suggesting it has become an intensely political case.
On at least two occasions since the election of the Abbott government, asylum seekers rescued by Australian ships have been returned to Indonesian agencies in mid-ocean, ship-to-ship operations.
However, with tensions high over allegations of Australia spying on Indonesia, and no agreement reached yet on a cooperative way of dealing with asylum seekers, the Indonesians may have grown reluctant to accommodate Australian demands.
If the stand-off continues into Friday morning, it will represent a significant ramping up of tensions between the two governments, despite Tony Abbott’s election promise to make the relationship with Indonesia the warmest it had ever been.
Both foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop and defence minister David Johnston are due to meet their Indonesian counterparts on Indonesian soil on Friday morning.
Adi Fachroni Azis, the deputy officer in charge at Indonesian search and rescue agency Basarnas, confirmed that Australia had originally made the call to return the passengers to Indonesia.
Mr Adi said the Australian Rescue Coordination Centre had notified the Indonesians of a distress call from a wooden asylum seeker boat about 57 nautical miles south of Indonesia at about 9.30am AEDT on Thursday morning.
The boat had reported engine trouble. But when HMAS Ballarat arrived about three hours later, the crew found the engine was in working order, so the Australian navy vessel sailed away.
“After they left, the engine apparently really was broken,” Mr Adi said.
It’s understood an Australian ship then joined the vessel to ensure its safety.
It’s unclear if the people aboard the boat sabotaged the engine after the Ballarat left them, but if they did, it would highlight the risk of any Australian policy of attempting to turn-back even seaworthy boats to Indonesia.
Mr Morrison met the Indonesian justice and human rights minister Amir Syamsuddin last week but failed to achieve any concrete commitments on asylum seekers.
However, Mr Agus flagged the possibility to Fairfax Media of increased Indonesian navy patrols in the Timor Sea to intercept asylum boats.
That goodwill implicit in that offer seems to have dissipated since revelations emerged that Australia was involved in systematically spying on Indonesia’s political elite.