Proposal for transit ports stirs anger

September 23, 2013
Michael Bachelard

An Abbott government plan to set up asylum seeker ''transit ports'' on Indonesian soil has emerged as the latest lightning rod for anger in Jakarta.

And, amid unconfirmed reports on Sunday of the arrival of eight asylum seeker boats since the election, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison confirmed his department would no longer provide the real-time updates on arrivals that used to arrive several times a day. Instead, the three-star general in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders, Angus Campbell, will front the first in a series of weekly media briefings on Monday.

''Briefings on Operation Sovereign Borders will be initially held weekly with any changes based on operational considerations to be advised,'' Mr Morrison said.

Mr Abbott's $198 million plan to set up asylum-seeker terminals in Indonesian ports and elsewhere in the region has also been criticised by an international law expert who says it would raise more legal questions than other controversial parts of the Coalition's policy. Advertisement

The topic emerged as Mr Abbott confirmed last week that he would visit Jakarta on September 30.

Under the plan the government would set up the terminals ''subject to the agreement of our regional partners'', then lease ''a fleet of fast transfer vessels'' to carry asylum seekers there from mid-ocean, so they never enter Australian waters.

Officials would conduct health checks on the ship or at the port, and the smuggled people would be taken to nearby airports for charter flights directly to Nauru and Manus Island.

However, the plan threatens to intensify tensions over people smuggling between Canberra and Jakarta.

Indonesian officials contacted last week said they had not been made aware of the proposal. When it was explained to Mahfudz Siddiq, chairman of the Indonesian parliament's Commission I, which oversees foreign affairs, he said he thought it would be ''intervening in other countries' sovereignty''.

Another senior Indonesian government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was one of many worrying policies, but that Indonesia wanted to hear Mr Abbott and Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop spell them out before commenting. ''Having not heard directly from the Australian government side about what exact policies they want, we are hardly able to make a guess [about the transit port policy] because we are not sitting and listening face-to-face on the issues,'' the source said.

International law expert Professor Don Rothwell, of the Australian National University, said the transit ports proposal could prove even more of a legal headache than the controversial boat tow-backs and buybacks, and paying bounties for information on people-smuggling networks.

''There are multiple legal issues associated with [the transit ports], perhaps even more so than other parts of the policy,'' Professor Rothwell said. ''Without Indonesian consent there is no way this policy would be capable of implementation.''


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