Thursday, July 5, 2012

Indonesia rejects Abbott 'tow back boats' vow

THE Indonesian government has confirmed that it would not accept the towing back of asylum seeker boats to its shores.

The policy puts an incoming Coalition government in Canberra on a collision course with Indonesia after the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, reiterated the stance yesterday.

And, as the Australian Navy brought 160 asylum seekers to safety on Christmas Island on Wednesday, there are increasing reports that passengers on such boats are refusing to deal with Indonesian authorities for fear of being sent back.

Senior sources familiar with discussions in Darwin this week between the Indonesian and Australian governments said ''Indonesia made it clear to us'' that it would not tolerate what is a key element of the Coalition's strategy. The Herald has been told that one of those who conveyed this message was the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa.

One senior Australian official said it was obvious it would be impossible to tow back boats and have a constructive relationship with Jakarta.

''It would take the relationship off a cliff,'' the official said.

The refusal of the crew of a boat to return to Indonesia when ordered on Wednesday had the opposition saying again yesterday it would tow back boats where safe to do so, whereas the government's policy had been shown to be impotent.

Mr Abbott said a Coalition government would back the navy using whatever ''steps that are necessary to get that boat turned around''.

This included a repeat of a procedure used by the Howard government to confiscate extra fuel from the vessel, which would render it unable to complete the voyage to Australian waters.
The latest arrivals on Christmas Island are 160 men, women and children from Iraq - including Palestinians living there - Iran and Afghanistan, according to sources on Christmas Island.

Gagah Prakoso, a spokesman for the Indonesian search and rescue agency Basarnas, does not know if people smugglers are now instructing their passengers to call Australia directly, but he does know that when his agency tries to contact boats in distress, ''they hang up''.

''Perhaps they know it's not a call from Australia,'' he said.

A number of recent vessels, including two that sank with the loss of 94 or more lives, and one that didn't, have directly contacted the Australian Maritime Safety Authority or the Australian Federal Police.

The head of the law enforcement unit at the Banten maritime police has told the Herald that asylum seekers would do almost anything to avoid Indonesian authorities. ''From my experience they do refuse to be arrested by Indonesian authorities, in particular by the immigration department, because they would be detained in immigration detention - and it could be for years,''.

Recent sinkings have shown that asylum seekers will risk high seas even if their boat is crippled.
The leaking boat that sank on June 21, killing 90 or more people, had been warned by phone about 30 hours before it sank to return to Indonesia, but it kept going, slowly, towards Christmas Island.
Asylum seekers in distress had recently begun using satellite phones. The phones were equipped with the numbers of Australian agencies and they refused to speak to Indonesians, he said.
By Phillip Coorey, Tony Wright, Daniel Flitton, Michael Bachelard for the National Times

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