KUPANG, Indonesia–The Australian navy has turned an asylum-seeker boat back to Indonesia without first informing authorities there, Indonesian police said Tuesday, prompting fresh anger in Jakarta about Canberra’s tough boatpeople policies.
It is the first reported instance in which the new Australian government has turned a boat back without Indonesian cooperation, and has added to recent tensions between Jakarta and Canberra over a spying row. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa stressed Indonesia’s “rejection” of Australia’s tough border policies following the incident. The boat was carrying 45 immigrants, mostly from Somalia and Sudan, and arrived on Rote Island in eastern Indonesia in the early hours of Monday, Rote Ndao district police chief Hidayat told AFP.
Hidayat, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said the asylum-seekers told officials they entered Australian waters near Ashmore Island before being intercepted by the navy vessel. “The Australian boat accompanied the vessel and pushed it back to Indonesian waters towards Rote Island,” Hidayat said, adding the asylum-seekers were given life vests and a water pump. He said he did not know how far the Australian vessel had accompanied the boat and whether it had entered Indonesia’s search and rescue zone or its territorial waters.
“Australian authorities didn’t alert us that the boat would be pushed back to the island,” he added. However, he denied reports that the boat had run out of fuel and run aground.
In November Indonesia refused to accept a group of some 60 asylum-seekers who were picked up by an Australian vessel south of the main island of Java.
Canberra eventually agreed to take them to the Australian territory of Christmas Island. Jakarta has been irked by Canberra’s hardline Operation Sovereign Borders, which helped propel conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott to power in September, warning it could breach Indonesian territorial sovereignty. Natalegawa would not comment specifically on Monday’s boat turn-back.
But he added: “Let me once again put on the record our rejection of policies that resemble pushing back the boats. Because such a policy is not conducive to a comprehensive solution to the issue.” “If we all did this, where would it end? Every country would turn boats back to other countries,” he added. As well as sending asylum-seeker boats back to Indonesia, the policy involves buying boats from Indonesian fishermen and destroying them to prevent them being used to ferry asylum-seekers to Australia. Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday refused to discuss the turn-back, in line with his conservative government’s policy of not commenting on operations “on water.” But he insisted: “It is not the policy or practice of the Australian government to violate Indonesian territorial sovereignty. Any suggestion to the contrary is false.” Hundreds of people have died in fatal sinkings in recent years, often after boarding rickety, wooden boats in Indonesia to try to make the treacherous sea crossing to Australia. Australia has been trying to repair ties with Indonesia since allegations emerged in November that Canberra attempted to tap the phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and inner circle. The scandal sparked a diplomatic crisis, with Jakarta recalling its ambassador from Canberra and freezing cooperation with Australia in a number of areas, including on people-smuggling.