Indonesia changes tack as asylum-seekers returned

Paul Maley and Cameron Stewart
Australian October 14, 2013 12:00AM

INDONESIA has been accepting asylum-seekers rescued at sea by Australian authorities, boosting hopes that Jakarta may be prepared to shoulder a greater share of the burden of dealing with the people-smuggling trade.

Australian officials have been taking advantage of Jakarta's goodwill by trying -- on at least two occasions in recent weeks -- to intercept asylum-seeker boats further north as soon as calls for help are received.

In both cases, the transfer of asylum-seekers was done at sea and came after Australian officials requested Indonesia's search and rescue agency, Basarnas, take them.

As a result, Customs and Border Protection vessels have been operating slightly further north of Christmas Island than they have in the past.

The returns have a similar effect on asylum-seekers as turning back boats -- the most controversial element of the Coalition's policies -- but avoid any possibility of a diplomatic stoush with Jakarta.

Although they do not represent a formal policy, the returns are understood to be a priority for the Abbott government, which has long held the view that Australia is not obliged to receive every boatload of asylum-seekers rescued by Australian authorities.

Australian and Indonesian officials have been engaging in talks aimed at deepening co-operation on a range of anti-smuggling measures.

The talks followed the visit two weeks ago by Tony Abbott to Jakarta, where the Prime Minister met Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Although there has been a lull in arrivals, authorities intercepted an asylum boat carrying 55 people on Wednesday afternoon.

The boat, which was carrying Iranians, Afghans and Sri Lankans, was unloaded at Christmas Island on Saturday morning, just two days after another boat bearing Sri Lankan asylum-seekers arrived off Cocos Island.

The Australian has been told there are encouraging signs Jakarta is now prepared to accept asylum-seekers intercepted by Australian authorities during rescues.

Senior Australian officials are understood to be heartened by what they see as a new-found willingness among the upper echelons of Indonesia's political and bureaucratic elite to co-operate with Australia, particularly during rescues.

Last week, Australian Federal Police Commissioner Tony Negus offered an insight into the type of co-operation between the AFP and its Indonesian counterparts, saying more than 550 asylum-seekers had been prevented from boarding boats.

It is understood the high tempo of disruptions is in part the result of a request by Kevin Rudd, who after reclaiming the Labor leadership in June petitioned Dr Yudhoyono to increase law enforcement efforts against the smugglers.

Indonesia's ocean-faring boats, the ones capable of mounting rescues in high seas, are deployed to the country's north for strategic reasons, meaning Jakarta struggles to mount rescues within its southern search-and-rescue zones.

Its civil maritime assets are ill-equipped to operate far from shore, effectively leaving Australia responsible for co-ordinating, or even conducting, rescues that occur between Indonesia and Christmas Island.

But given the rescues occur within Indonesia's search-and-rescue area, there is scope for returning asylum-seekers to the custody of Indonesian authorities lawfully and without any loss of face.

One source familiar with the present situation said the SOLAS, or safety-of-life-at-sea conventions, "were being pushed to their limits" by Australia's new government.


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