Indonesia says Australian Navy 'pushed' back asylum seeker boat that ran aground
By Indonesia correspondent George Roberts
Indonesian authorities say the Australian Navy forced an asylum seeker boat back towards Indonesia, where it ran out of fuel and ran aground.
The incident allegedly happened shortly before Christmas but was only reported in local Indonesian news now, after refugee rights activists noticed reports and posted them on Twitter.
Indonesia's government newswire Antara says a group of 47 asylum seekers was arrested by police on Rote Island, in Indonesia's East Nusa Tenggara region, last month.
Local police chief Hidayat says the asylum seekers had been on a boat trying to get to the Ashmore Islands, but were intercepted by the Australian Navy and forced back to Indonesian waters.
He says the group left South Sulawesi bound for Australia on December 8.
They were then intercepted on December 13 by the Australian Navy and "pushed" or forced back to Indonesian waters.
About six days later on December 19, they were found having run out of fuel and run aground on Rote Island, where Indonesian authorities picked them up.
Antara says the group was mostly made up of Sudanese and Somalian asylum seekers. Labor, Greens urge Morrison to clarify incident ABC FactCheck: Abbott splitting hairs on the difference between towing and turning back the boats
Labor and the Greens say the Government must reveal the details of the alleged incident. Map: Rote Island, Indonesia
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says the reports are serious and must be clarified by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.
"We've got a situation where a boat has been towed back by Australian officers, the boat has run aground. These people could have drowned," she said.
"How many other boats has this occurred to that we've never heard about?
"Mr Morrison must clarify immediately and it has to be today."
The Federal Government has outlined its intention to "turn back" boats "where it is safe to do so" as part of its asylum seeker policy.
Under Operation Sovereign Borders, Mr Morrison had been providing information about what it calls "on-water operations" during a weekly briefing given each Friday.
Mr Morrison has in the past refused to release more information about asylum seeker operations because of "national security" and "the protection of public safety".
He gave his last weekly briefing in December and it is unclear whether they will continue this year, with reports a weekly email may be distributed instead. Reports come amid already strained relationship
News that the Australian Navy physically forced a boat of asylum seekers back to Indonesia is likely to inflame tensions between the two countries.
The issue of turning back asylum seeker boats has been a sticking point since well before the relationship became strained over the spying scandal. Spy games explained
Australia's role in the NSA spy program, including what it means for Indonesian relations.
Leaked notes from a meeting between Indonesia's foreign minister Marty Natalegawa and his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop, show Dr Natalegawa warned that Australia was risking trust and cooperation between the two countries.
Despite previous warnings from Indonesia in the preceding months, Ms Bishop told Dr Natalegawa that Australia would press ahead with the policy.
In late September, Tony Abbott made his first trip to Jakarta as Prime Minister and promised president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono publicly that Australia would never to anything to "violate Indonesia's sovereignty."
It was a reference to how Indonesia had termed the concept of turning boats back.
But just days beforehand, Australian authorities insisted that Indonesia's rescue agency, BASARNAS, accept the passengers from two boats rescued en route to Australia.
The move prompted Indonesia to stop rescue agencies from facilitating such transfers and instead make the issue a political one.
Mr Yudhoyono appointed the powerful coordinating minister for politics, law and security, Djoko Suyanto, to oversee Indonesia's response to asylum seekers.
Djoko Suyanto, a close ally of the president, later made it clear when Australia attempted to return another boatload of asylum seekers, that it would not accept returns.
In early November, as Australia attempted to return a boatload of asylum seekers to Java, Djoko Suyanto told ABC News that Indonesia's position would not change.
After nearly two days the Australian Government gave in and sent the asylum seekers to Christmas Island.
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