SBS News
22 April 2003

Indonesia has denied that its relationship with Australia has been damaged after it turned away a boatload of illegal immigrants. The vessel is now believed to be heading this way - the first in more than a year.

The Federal Government says there have been no illegal boat arrivals on Australian shores for 15 months. Now a vessel reportedly carrying 42 Vietnamese boat people is on its way here. The boat arrived off the Indonesian coast of south Kalimantan near Banjarmasin, after running out of fuel. Fearing some passengers could be infected with SARS, the boat was instead stocked with food, water and fuel before being sent on its away.

ALEXANDER DOWNER, FOREIGN MINISTER: But whether it's heading for Australia, I think, is, um, is uncertain. We just don't know whether it would even be able to get that far quite, frankly.

Like many other refugee boats before it, this latest one is said to lack basic navigational equipment. It's overcrowded and apparently carrying six families wanting to reunite with relatives here. Australia says it's offered Indonesia assistance. But until the boat reaches international waters, it says there's no obligation to help those on board.

MARGARET PIPER, REFUGEE COUNCIL: The most important thing at this time is that we ensure the safety of these people and if they do come to Australia to ensure that those that have claims for protection get this protection.

The Minister says he does not believe the boat marks the start of a new wave of illegal immigrants.

PHILIP RUDDOCK, IMMIGRATION MINISTER: This is not a major people-smuggling exercise. It's an opportunistic venture put together by some people who are seeking a migration outcome who are not prepared to go through normal migration procedures.

TONY KEVIN, FORMER DIPLOMAT: If we've learned anything from the terrible events of 2001, when 353 people, mostly women and children, drowned on their way to Australia, half...some distance between Java and Christmas Island, we wouldn't be taking such a cavalier attitude to this present report of the Vietnamese boat that Mr Ruddock and Mr Downer are taking.

The issue will be tackled next week when Australia and Indonesia co-host the second regional ministerial conference on people-smuggling, in Bali.

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