Navy now 'towing' back the boats

BRENDAN NICHOLSON
The Australian
January 09, 2014 12:00AM

THE Abbott government is implementing a radical policy of towing asylum boats back to Indonesian waters.

Details of at least one boat being towed back and another being forced back emerged yesterday as Indonesia's military chief said he and his Australian counterpart had agreed to the policy as part of Operation Sovereign Borders. The Jakarta Post reported yesterday that TNI commander General Meoldoko said Canberra's decision to turn back a boat last week was "justifiable" as he had made an agreement with Australian Defence Force chief David Hurley.

Indonesian officials have indicated that two boats have been turned back by Australian ships from Border Protection Command, one in the middle of last month and the other last week.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison refused to comment on the claims yesterday, citing operational reasons. But in a statement on Friday, he revealed that a boat was intercepted near Melville Island, off Darwin, on New Year's Day and three days later was still at sea under the control of Border Protection Command.

Last night, the Seven Network quoted a man claiming to be a Sudanese asylum-seeker who said he was on a boat that was intercepted near an island north of Darwin by Australian authorities, who towed the vessel by rope back to Indonesian waters.

The man said the vessel he was on was cut loose by the Royal Australian Navy near Indonesia's Rote Island on Sunday.

An Indonesian policeman identified as Burhanuddin said this week a boat with 45 asylum-seekers from Africa and the Middle East had been found drifting near Rote Island on Monday after it was sent back by the crew of an Australian warship.

The Australian understands the Indonesian boat was turned back by the frigate HMAS Stuart, after its crew gave the asylum-seekers life-jackets, supplies of food and water and other equipment, including a pump.

The asylum-seekers reportedly included nine women.

During his first visit to Indonesia as Prime Minister, in October, Tony Abbott told a media conference in Jakarta: "Can I just scotch this idea that the Coalition's policy is or ever has been tow-backs.

"Our policy, which we've repeated 'til we're blue in the face, is that we reserve the right to turn boats around where it is safe to do so. There's a lot of difference between turning boats around in Australian waters and the Australian navy towing them back to Indonesia. There's just a world of difference."

During the election campaign, Mr Morrison said the Coalition had never had a policy of towing boats back to Indonesia. He said that position had been misrepresented in the media over a long period.

Mr Abbott told Radio 4BC last July that "our policy is turnaround, not strictly speaking tow-backs. It's turnaround. But we've done it before, we can do it again. These boats are Indonesian-flagged, Indonesian-crewed, Indonesian home-ported. They have a right to proceed to an Indonesian port".

The ABC ran interviews last night with asylum-seekers in Indonesia who said they had been on boats taken back to Indonesia by the RAN. They claimed some who objected were handcuffed and otherwise restrained and ill-treated.

One said his boat was picked up near Darwin on January 1 and towed for five days before being cut lose near Rote Island. Another said his boat was towed back on December 10.

Indonesian government spokesman Agus Barnas said an apparent plan by the Abbott government to buy a fleet of lifeboats to send asylum-seekers back was provocative. "It is better for Australia to be cooling down."

During the campaign, the Coalition secretly canvassed the idea of using specially built barges, and the lifeboat plan appears to be a development. The Australian was told the lifeboats were being bought in Singapore and cost up to $90,000 each.

The Jakarta Post reported General Moeldoko as saying he and General Hurley had agreed that boats could be turned around. "Following (our) halted military co-operation with Australia, the country's defence force chief called me to discuss several issues, including how to deal with the boatpeople," he said. "He told me that Indonesia should understand if Australia drove back undocumented migrants attempting to enter the country using Indonesian boats or if any Indonesians were found aboard. I have agreed. Therefore, we don't need to feel offended."

The Post said General Moeldoko was overruled by Mr Barnas, who said no such agreement had been reached.

General Moeldoko's position also appeared to contradict Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who said on Tuesday the government opposed the policy of turning back boats.

The Australian was told the RAN was asked in December to collect a number of commercial lifeboats to be purchased in Singapore. The navy did not have a vessel available to carry the lifeboats and it is understood they are still in Singapore.

The lifeboats are the same as those carried on ocean liners.

Lifeboat manufacturer Vanguard Composite Engineering, based in Singapore, told The Australian its boats would be suitable to transport refugees. A spokeswoman said that would mean modifying the engines and providing a canvas cover to allow easy access and to provide protection from the weather.

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