Australian Navy sends asylum seekers back to Indonesia after interception off coast of Java

Updated September 27, 2013 18:48:06

Raw footage shows the asylum seekers being handed over early this morning Video: Raw footage shows the asylum seekers being handed over early this morning (ABC News)

More than 40 asylum seekers who attempted to get to Australia by boat have been sent back to Indonesia by the Australian Navy.

The 44 asylum seekers and two crew members were on a boat which issued a distress call 40 nautical miles off Java yesterday morning.

Suyatno, the head of operations at the Jakarta office of Indonesia's rescue agency Basarnas, says his agency did not have the capability to reach the boat.

The Australian Navy intercepted the vessel and then advised Basarnas that it would drop the asylum seekers off.

In the early hours of this morning an Indonesian rescue crew met a Navy ship off the coast of Java and the asylum seekers were handed over.

It is understood the handover took place just outside the 12 nautical mile limit of Indonesian territorial waters.

Suyatno says he does not know why Australia did not take the asylum seekers to Christmas Island.

One of the boat’s crew members, Azam, says the boat was not broken, despite passengers calling Australia to be rescued.

He says the Navy set fire to the boat at sea.

The passengers and crew have been returned to the Indonesian mainland.

Asylum seekers have only been handed back to Indonesia once before

An interception of this kind, where the Australian Navy hands asylum seekers back to Indonesian authorities after being asked to assist in their rescue, only happened once during the six years of the last Labor government.

On that occasion, last year, a boat sank near the mouth of the Sunda Strait off west Java.

The asylum seekers said the Navy told them they would be taken to Darwin for medical treatment.

But in the middle of the night, the Australian Navy forced the sick and sunburnt Afghan asylum seekers onto a Basarnas boat to be returned to Indonesia.

At the time the Labor government claimed that was an operational decision made by the Navy.

On all other occasions when asylum seekers have been intercepted by Australian authorities, they have been taken to Christmas Island.

Analysis: Operation hints at new tougher approach under Operation Sovereign Borders

The ABC's Parliament House bureau chief Greg Jennett says that while this rescue does not strictly qualify as a boat "turnback", it hints at a new and tougher approach by Australia.

He says it could also establish a precedent with Indonesia whereby any call for Australian help with rescues or intercepts comes with a condition that the passengers will be handed back.

But the public may never know if such protocols exist.

The Government is sticking by its policy of not commenting on the operational details of any intercepts at sea under Operation Sovereign Borders.

The next opportunity to question the Immigration Minister and his Commander will be at their scheduled briefing, due next Monday.

Boat was carrying asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq and Pakistan

It is understood the passengers on the asylum vessel were from Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan.

Crew member Azam has told ABC News that he was tricked into skippering the boat to Australia.

"I was offered work in a tourist boat by a man called Adi. He recruited me in Lombok and and flew me to Jakarta airport," he said.

"Then I was taken to an unknown beach with a car and met these passengers and the boat."

He said there was nothing wrong with the boat when the Australian Navy "intercepted" it, and the engine was working.

It appears the asylum seekers called the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, hoping to get rescued and taken to Australia.

The transfer of the people back to west Java has caused a minor dispute with local immigration authorities, who did not want responsibility for the asylum seekers.

Unless they have UNHCR asylum seeker or refugee papers they will be treated as illegal immigrants, but Indonesia's immigration detention network is over capacity.

Indonesia now says briefing note on Bishop talks was sent by mistake

The interception came as a diplomatic row continued to simmer between Australia and Indonesia ahead of Prime Minister Tony Abbott's trip to Jakarta on Monday.

A war of words broke out yesterday when the office of Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa sent out a detailed summary of a private meeting the minister held with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop in New York earlier this week.

The email said the foreign ministers discussed the Coalition's plans to turn back asylum boats and noted that Australia wanted to work on the issue "behind the scenes" and "quietly".

It also warned Australia's plans to turn back asylum seeker boats could jeopardise trust and cooperation between the two countries.

Diplomatic row looms after Alexander Downer's comments Video: Diplomatic row looms after Alexander Downer's comments (ABC News)

That prompted former Liberal foreign minister Alexander Downer to use an appearance on ABC TV to issue a pointed rebuke to Dr Natalegawa, saying Indonesian crews are breaching Australian sovereignty and he should not be "taking shots" at the Coalition.

But today Indonesia's foreign ministry issued a "correction", saying the information in the briefing note was not intended for the media, that the meeting was private, and there was no official press release.

"Information [from that meeting] is now being quoted in several media outlets to create the impression of discord among Indonesian and Australian officials on matters of mutual interest, " it said.

"The Indonesian government... stands ready to work with the Australian Government... to ensure the interests of both our people are fulfilled."

Tony Abbott says friction over boats is 'passing irritant' in relationship with Jakarta

Earlier today, Prime Minister Tony Abbott described tensions between the two countries over the Coalition's border protection policy as a "passing irritant".

"The last thing I would ever want to do is anything that doesn't show the fullest possible respect for Indonesia's sovereignty," he said.

"We are already at this very moment cooperating closely with the Indonesians... I don't believe that the incoming government will do anything that will put that cooperation at risk. We want to build on that."

Topics: refugees, immigration, community-and-society, foreign-affairs, navy, government-and-politics, java, indonesia, asia, australia

First posted September 27, 2013 16:18:34