Ports search for asylum boat

By Rob Taylor in Jakarta
The Australian
August 31, 2004

INDONESIAN water police are scouring ports in East Java for a boatload of suspected asylum seekers said to be heading to Australia and threatening to spark another election storm over illegal immigration.

As senior government MP Trish Worth caused an uproar by comparing the detention of asylum seekers to the quarantine rules that apply to pets brought into Australia from overseas, the chief of East Java water police commissioner Tonny Suhartono said Sri Lankan-based people smugglers were organising a voyage to Australia.

A group of asylum seekers from an as yet unknown country were said to be leaving Thailand soon and were planning to purchase a boat in East Java for the trip to Australia, he said.

"We haven't received any reports of them arriving," Mr Tonny said.

"We will be suspicious of all foreign boats carrying lots of people and of boats departing."

Mr Tonny said Indonesian authorities had been tipped off by Australian Federal Police, who visited the East Java capital Surabaya last month.

"We have 17 water police stations across the region and we have been ordered by police headquarters in Jakarta to alert all staff," he said.

"We have now deployed our members to supervise all harbours. If they are going to depart it will be difficult, because they will need money and logistics to back the trip."

The 2001 Australian election was marred by the crisis over asylum seekers taken aboard by the Norwegian freighter Tampa and the children overboard controversy.

As well, Australia and Indonesia had a diplomatic spat over the sinking of the so-called SIEV-X refugee boat with around 353 mostly women and children aboard shortly before the poll.

Mr Tonny said most asylum seekers travelled overland through Indonesia, which they then used as a jumping off point for Australia.

As many as 3500 have become stranded after the Howard Government introduced a tough border patrol regime, which included towing boats back into international waters and cutting offshore islands out of Australia's immigration processing zone.

The last big group to arrive was in 2001. A group of failed Afghan asylum seekers began a hunger strike near Jakarta last month in protest at their fate as Indonesia moved to make people trafficking a crime for the first time.

Under the new laws people smugglers would face jail terms of between four and 15 years and fines of up to $150,000.

Illegal immigrants caught in Indonesia could also face jail for up to three years and fines of around $75,000.

Australian spies have also waged an aggressive campaign against people smuggling rings in Indonesia, using phone intercepts and a network of paid informants to help channel intelligence to Indonesian police.

Australian defence personnel also help Jakarta keep its fleet of Australian-built maritime patrol aircraft flying over the sprawling archipelago of more than 18,000 islands.

An Indonesian immigration spokesman said immigration authorities had not yet been told about the new asylum hopefuls.

Meanwhile, Ms Worth said she meant no offence by her comments.

The Adelaide MP infuriated refugee advocates and Democrats senator when she told a refugee forum that if a dog or cat were brought into the country, certain tests would have to be carried out.

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