A BOATLOAD of asylum seekers at the centre of a standoff between Australia and Indonesia was headed for Christmas Island yesterday.
While Indonesian authorities “review” Australia’s request that the passengers – believed to number more than 50 – be taken to Indonesia, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison ended the stalemate yesterday. One report said the boat might have reached the Australian outpost yesterday.
“In the best interests of the safety of the passengers and crew … earlier this morning I requested (the) transfer (of) the persons rescued to Christmas Island for rapid onward transfer to Manus Island or Nauru,” Mr Morrison said in a statement.
“They will not be resettled in Australia,” he said.
Australian authorities responded to a distress call from the wooden boat on Thursday, finding it about 43 nautical miles south of Java inside Indonesia’s search and rescue zone. But requests to take the passengers to Indonesia were refused by local authorities, sparking a standoff which lasted more than 24 hours.
“On two recent occasions, Indonesia has agreed to these requests and facilitated an on-water transfer,” Mr Morrison said.
“The Indonesian government has advised Australian officials overnight that they are reviewing the request put forward by Australia.”
The Indonesian government has convened a conference of agencies dealing with asylum seekers and border security trying to prevent a repetition of this week’s stand-off with Australia..
Co-ordinating Minister for Legal Political and Security Affairs Djoko Suyanto convened the meeting on Friday afternoon and it is expected to resume tomorrow.
A source at the meeting told The Australian the conference will establish procedures to formalise the government’s position that Indonesia will not accept asylum seekers from Australian rescue vessels, except in emergency situations.
General Djoko spelled out the tough line on Friday in a message to news organisations yesterday, before Mr Morrison ordered the Australian back-down.
“The Indonesian government NEVER AGREED to such wishes or policies of Australia. This has been conveyed since the time of Kevin Rudd, and there is NO CHANGE of policy regarding asylum seekers wanting to go to Australia under the current Abbott government,” General Djoko wrote.
“Australia already has its own ‘detention centres’ in Nauru and PNG. That’s where the asylum seekers should be sent, NOT TO Indonesia.”
This stance spells serious trouble for the plans the Coalition took into government for turning asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia when safe to do so.
With Indonesia having allowed at least two known boatloads of people rescued at sea to be returned in September, hopes were raised in Canberra that the country could permit routine returns of asylum seekers intercepted in Indonesia’s contiguous waters.
Australia describes those waters as Indonesia’s search and rescue zone but the term is mostly meaningless since Indonesia’s navy and coastguard have not the capability for open seas search and rescue.
Canberra policymakers believe that if potential asylum seekers knew they would be routinely returned to Indonesia if intercepted by Australian vessels, they would be further discouraged from setting-off in the first place.
However Indonesia has now made it explicit it will not allow boat people to be returned by the Australian navy and customs service, except in dire circumstances.
Agencies at Friday’s Jakarta meeting included search and rescue agency Basarnas, the Immigration Department, the military, national intelligence agencies and the national police.
Mr Morrison said Australia would continue to liaise with Indonesia on a case-by-case basis and that the request was made on this occasion because of the boat’s close proximity to the Indonesian coast.
The row over the would-be-refugees comes as tensions between the two countries have been under pressure over a spying controversy following a report that Australian missions across Asia, including the one in Jakarta, were involved in a US-led spying network.
The allegations of espionage prompted Indonesia to summon the Australian ambassador, while Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa declared “enough is enough”.
But Prime Minister Tony Abbott said yesterday that there was a mutually-respectful relationship between Australia and Indonesia on several fronts including measures to combat people smuggling.
“When I was up in Jakarta a few weeks ago I was able to tell President (Susilo Bambang) Yudhoyono – a very good friend of our country, an outstanding president of Indonesia – that we utterly, totally, completely respected Indonesian sovereignty,” Mr Abbott told West Australian Liberal party conference.
“And if any boat ever set out from Australia to Indonesia to enter that country illegally, we would do our damnedest to stop it.”
Additional reporting: AAP, AFP