Aust, Indonesia rift intensifies with reports of more Papua asylum seekers

PM - Wednesday, 5 April , 2006 18:10:00
Reporter: Louise Yaxley

MARK COLVIN: Reports of a new group of asylum seekers from the Indonesian province of Papua have put more pressure on the Federal Government's relationship with Indonesia.

Furious that Australia granted temporary protection visas to 42 people from Papua last month, Jakarta withdrew its ambassador.

Senior Federal Government Ministers are now trying to stop the relationship with Indonesia deteriorating any further by declaring that there is no Australian support for Papuan independence.

The Federal Opposition's spokesman Kevin Rudd agrees, but he is talking openly about human rights abuses in the province.

As Louise Yaxley reports, the Government is talking up a new crackdown on border protection to try to stop any more Papuans getting through.

LOUISE YAXLEY: Six, possibly seven, people from the Indonesian province of Papua are reported to have made it somewhere. The Attorney General Philip Ruddock says if more have arrived, it will certainly cause more concern in Indonesia.

The Prime Minister says there is tension in Jakarta over Papua, but he's tried to reassure the northern neighbour by restating clearly his view about the province of Papua.

JOHN HOWARD: Well my message to the people of West Papua is simply this, I regard them as citizens of the Republic of Indonesia.

LOUISE YAXLEY: This latest group is reported to be on Torres Strait Island, possible one called Deliverance Island, which is about 12 nautical miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The Customs Minister Chris Ellison says the search is on.

CHRIS ELLISON: Customs Coastwatch is still investigating the matter. We're carrying out investigations in the Torres Strait.

LOUISE YAXLEY: The Defence Minister Brendan Nelson goes further, promising a new crackdown on unauthorised arrivals.

BRENDAN NELSON: The Government is in the process of developing an even more significant strategy to police this part of the Australia, not only from illegal fishing but also from unauthorised arrivals.

LOUISE YAXLEY: Dr Nelson's in Darwin, after a joint exercise against illegal fishing boats. And he says it's a similar process to catch asylum seekers. BRENDAN NELSON: We've been very successful over the last five or six years in terms of stopping this, and I can assure you that we are about to further increase our activities. And what's involved in detecting and preventing illegal fishing is very similar, of course, to that involved in preventing unauthorised arrivals.

LOUISE YAXLEY: The Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett says simply making it harder for Papuans to reach Australia won't make this issue go away.

ANDREW BARTLETT: Well, it's a pretty sad state of affairs really when our own government has acknowledged that there is significant human rights problems in West Papua and their response to it is not to try and reduce the human rights abuses, but to just prevent people from escaping that persecution.

I think the reason why we're having so much difficulty with our relationship with Indonesia over this issue now is because we've spent so longing turning a blind eye to it and just sweeping it under the carpet, hoping it goes away. It can't go away until there is proper action to reduce the human rights abuses, and just preventing people from escaping that persecution, isn't going to solve the problem.

LOUISE YAXLEY: Senator Bartlett is using strong language like "persecution", but the Labor spokesman Kevin Rudd is also talking about human rights problems in Papua.

KEVIN RUDD: There is a diplomatic platform available for us to handle this immediate crisis over lets call it the outflow of people from West Papua because of concerns about human rights within West Papua.

LOUISE YAXLEY: The Prime Minister hasn't ruled out calling the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to try to diffuse these tensions. It's clear there is a level of anxiety about this row amongst some of his ministers. The Fisheries Minister Eric Abetz foreshadows Indonesia might change its level of cooperation on stopping illegal fishing.

ERIC ABETZ: What we've got to ensure is that our relationship with Indonesia is as good as it possibly can be in all the circumstances, and it stands to reason that from time to time, there might be differences between our countries, and we have to be mature enough to accept that. What I think that means for Australians is that we've got to make sure that we have the capacity to patrol our own borders irrespective of the sort of support we might get form our friends in Indonesia.

MARK COLVIN: Eric Abetz ending that report from Louise Yaxley.


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