An Indonesian fishing boat carrying 14 asylum seekers that attempted last week to land in Australia has been towed back to Indonesia, senior Australian ministers said yesterday.
Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said the wooden fishing boat, the Minasa Bone, was pulled back into Indonesian waters by an Australian navy ship, and then made its way to an Indonesian island.
The 14 men, who claimed to be Turkish Kurds, and four crew were now in the care of police and officials from the International Organization for Migration, or IOM.
"They are safe, they are in Indonesia, the IOM are there," Vanstone told the Seven Network television yesterday.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer later said the boat had docked at the port of Saumlaki on the island of Yamdena, east of Timor and about 300km north of Darwin, capital of Australia's Northern Territory.
The boat had arrived in Australia on Tuesday at Melville Island, 75km north of Darwin, but the government refused to bring the asylum seekers on to Australian soil.
Landing them would have given the asylum seekers access to Australia's court system to make their claims for refugee visas.
In a joint statement issued by their offices, Downer and Vanstone thanked the Indonesian government for its assistance.
"The return of this vessel will send a strong message to those who would try to enter Australia illegally and those people smugglers who try to exploit these people," the statement said.
Following the incident, the government moved to discourage asylum seekers by immediately cutting Melville Island and hundreds of other islands from Australia's so-called migration zone, denying migrants the right to seek asylum in Australian courts.
Prime Minister John Howard's government has adopted a tough stance on immigration which has been criticized by human rights groups but is popular at home.