Australia and Indonesia are discussing a people “swap” deal under which Jakarta would take asylum seekers from Australia if Canberra agreed to take some of its refugees, an Indonesian government advisor said yesterday.
Asylum seekers arriving on unauthorized boats in Australia, often via Indonesia, are a sensitive issue for both sides, and Canberra’s military-led Operation Sovereign Borders to clamp down on them has raised concerns in Jakarta.
The issue flared last week when Australia rescued about 60 asylum seekers from a stricken vessel inside Indonesia’s search and rescue zone and Jakarta refused to take them back.
“They are talking about agreements,” Dewi Fortuna Anwar told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “If Indonesia were to take them, the costs of the burdens would be borne by Australia and then at the same time Australia will take the same number of people that are already sitting in detention centers in Indonesia and then they would be processed.”
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott confirmed that talks were underway with the Indonesian government “on a whole range of matters at a whole range of different levels,” but would not confirm any people-swap discussions.
“I’m just not going to comment other than to say we are of course talking with the Indonesians, as you would expect, about the best way of handling people who are picked up in their search and rescue zone,” he told reporters.
He repeated his suggestion that Indonesia should have taken the latest group because they were in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone.
“Obviously under normal search and rescue rules, people who are picked up in a country’s search and rescue zone go to the nearest safe port in that country ... we’re discussing this with Indonesians,” he said.
However, Anwar said they were not Jakarta’s responsibility.
“Because they’re not Indonesians. The 65 people are coming from the Middle East,” she said. “Indonesia’s on the way to Australia. These people pass through Indonesia. [The] Australian Navy intercepted the boat and then expect Indonesia to take these people back? They would be social burdens for Indonesia.”
Any deal would be similar to one proposed by Australia’s previous Labor government with Malaysia, under which Canberra was to take thousands of registered refugees for resettlement in exchange for Kuala Lumpur accepting hundreds who arrived in Australia by boat.
The plan never got off the ground after being rejected by the then hung parliament.
Since then, Abbott’s conservative government has come to power on a platform that included turning back boats to Indonesia when it was safe to do so — a policy that rankled with Jakarta.
“We were a bit taken aback, when during his campaign then-candidate Tony Abbott talked about taking unilateral action,” Anwar said. I think the Indonesian government has made it very clear that we really, really value the close cooperation between Jakarta and Canberra.”