Australia said yesterday it will take a boatload of asylum seekers at the center of a high-seas standoff with Indonesia to its Indian Ocean outpost of Christmas Island.
Australia had requested Indonesia take the group of about 60 people who were picked up by an Australian vessel south of Java on Thursday, but Indonesian officials had so far failed to agree to this.
“The Indonesian Government has advised Australian officials overnight that they are reviewing the request put forward by Australia,” Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement.
“While we welcome Indonesia’s review of our request, in the best interests of the safety of the passengers and crew of the rescued vessel and the Australian vessel that has been rendering assistance, earlier this morning I requested Lieutenant General [Angus] Campbell to transfer the persons rescued ... to Christmas Island,” the statement said.
Morrison said they would then be rapidly transferred to camps on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island or the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru, in line with Australia’s policy on asylum seekers arriving by boat. “They will not be resettled in Australia,” he said.
Morrison said the request that Indonesia take the asylum seekers was consistent with the standard practice given the incident took place inside its search and rescue zone and close to its coast.
“On two recent occasions, Indonesia has agreed to these requests and facilitated an on water transfer,” he said.
Australia’s new Prime Minister Tony Abbott has vowed to turn asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia — from where many embark on the dangerous journey — when it is safe to do so.
Jakarta has received the policy coolly, and on Friday an official angrily rejected the idea of asylum seekers being returned to Java.
“The Indonesian government NEVER AGREED to such wishes or policies of Australia,” Djoko Suyanto, coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, told reporters in a text message.
The row over the would-be-refugees comes as tensions between the two countries have been under pressure following a report that Australian missions across Asia, including the one in Jakarta, were involved in a US-led spying network.
Abbott insisted yesterday that ties with Jakarta were good and improving, but his conservative government was determined to stop the flow of asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat.
“We have good relations with Indonesia, good and improving relations, but we will stop these boats,” Abbott said during a speech in Perth.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has just returned from a two-day visit to Indonesia, backed up her prime minister, saying there was a “very good rapport” between the countries.
“When you sit down and go through the list, you can see how closely the Abbott government is working with the Indonesian government. Yet all we hear about are a couple of areas of disagreement that will be resolved,” she said.
Morrison said Australia would continue to liaise with Indonesia over search and rescue incidents, which often occur in the waters between the two countries, on a case-by-case basis.
“We will continue to honour our commitment to Indonesia to undertake this liaison privately and directly with Indonesian authorities,” he added.
Since the introduction eight weeks ago of Abbott’s Operation Sovereign Borders, a military-led crackdown on people-smuggling, 561 asylum seekers have arrived by unauthorized boat. This compares with more than 25,000 over the 12 months to June 30.