Indonesia’s ambassador to Australia has criticized Canberra’s tough stance on people smugglers, saying many of the accused traffickers in detention were innocent, a newspaper reported yesterday.
This year has seen a surge in arrivals of asylum seekers in Australia’s northern waters, generally from war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka, and usually brought by boat from neighboring Indonesia.
Primo Alui Joelianto, Jakarta’s ambassador to Australia, told the Weekend Australian many Indonesians detained when those boats were intercepted knew nothing about what was going on.
“Our staff went to the detention center in Christmas Island and in Perth and they found that some of the fishermen told them that they didn’t know anything,” Joelianto told the newspaper.
“They were just asked to bring persons to fish and to go somewhere. Then, in the middle of the sea, they were told that they had to go to Australia,” Joelianto said.
Under Australian law, people-smuggling can carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison or a A$220,000 (US$175,000) fine.
A series of mostly poor Indonesian nationals have appeared in Australian courts over recent arrivals by boat and several have been sentenced to jail.
A week ago, 11 Indonesians were sentenced to jail over four boat arrivals between last December and March.
Joelianto’s comments follow the interception a week ago of a boat carrying 194 people, an unusually large number on a single vessel.
Australia’s detention center on Christmas Island, a tiny Australian possession in the Indian Ocean just south of the Indonesian island of Java, is getting full with hundreds of asylum-seekers waiting to have their claims processed.
Australian Immigration Minister Chris Evans said on Friday the government was looking at using staff quarters at a casino on the island as alternative accommodation.
Illegal immigration is a hot political issue in Australia and the conservative opposition has accused Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of taking a soft stance on asylum seekers, saying it has fueled the new wave of arrivals.
After his election in 2007, Rudd ended the “Pacific solution” of his predecessor John Howard, closing down a much-criticized processing center on the tiny island nation of Nauru.