Asylum-seeker disaster risk high as navy stays out of Jakarta's zone

Dennis Shanahan and Peter Alford
The Australian
November 28, 2013 12:00AM

ASYLUM-SEEKERS heading to Christmas Island are at greater risk of drowning if their boats sink, as Jakarta's ban on co-operation with Australia in the Indonesian search and rescue region has not been lifted.

Indonesia has withdrawn search and rescue co-operation as a consequence of the spying controversy and a vast area of Indonesia's southern search and rescue zone is now virtually without naval monitoring or assistance for asylum-seeker boats in trouble.

Fearful of exacerbating tensions with Indonesia, the Australian navy has effectively withdrawn all vessels from the area.

The Yudhoyono administration last week stopped its search and rescue agency, Basarnas, from co-ordinating rescue operations in the vast southern search and rescue region with Australian authorities.

Indonesian police and immigration officials said at the weekend they were not taking any steps to prevent asylum-seeker boats leaving Indonesian waters for Christmas Island.

Djoko Suyanto, the senior minister now in charge of Basarnas operations in the region, confirmed last night that the ban remained, despite President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's olive branch to Tony Abbott on Tuesday night. "All co-operation activities are suspended until there is a code of conduct and protocol (between Indonesia and Australia)," his spokesman, Agus Barnas, told The Australian.

Because Indonesia's navy and coastguard are unequipped to carry out Indian Ocean rescues and Australia fears sparking an incident at sea during the diplomatic crisis, the Indonesian SRR south of Java is effectively vacated.

Australian naval vessels are reluctant to venture beyond Australia's 12-nautical-mile search and rescue zone surrounding Christmas Island, with all the remaining 200 nautical miles between it and Indonesia formally in the Indonesian zone.

As the diplomatic row continued, the fifth group of asylum-seekers to arrive in Australia this month stepped ashore at Christmas Island yesterday morning.

Detention workers said among the boatload were nine Rohingyan Burmese and two Indonesian crew, who were brought ashore about 11am local time (3pm AEDT) by the Ocean Protector, the Australian Customs vessel that has been on patrol near the Australian territory along with two navy patrol vessels.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison yesterday declined to clarify whether Australian authorities continued to work alongside their Indonesian counterparts. "Well, right now, I don't think my commentary on those specifics are going to help the very real optimism that we now have about this relationship moving forward, and there is nothing I would want to say today to put any of that at risk."

The Immigration Minister stressed the importance of the relationship with Indonesia, but did not offer his expectations of when full co-operation on issues relating to people-smuggling and border protection would resume.

"All of this is going to be a function of the very positive process that I think is now being established between the leaders, and I want to give that process every opportunity of success," he said.

"There's obviously some work to do and that work is being done between leaders and through the process they're establishing between them. I remain optimistic, and for one particular reason, and that is this relationship is incredibly important to both parties."

Before the spying crisis began two weeks ago with revelations of Australian intelligence monitoring of Dr Yudhoyono's phone, Australian navy vessels were prepared to patrol the vast Indonesian search and rescue area to head off asylum-seeker boats or assist those in danger.

The proximity of the Australian vessels led to disputes over who was responsible for asylum-seekers rescued at sea and whether they should be returned to Indonesia or taken to Christmas Island.

Dr Yudhoyono has made clear the bilateral relationship will not be fully resumed - including military and police co-operation on people-smuggling - until a new code of ethical conduct was "fully implemented" by the two nations.

Mr Abbott, meanwhile, has welcomed what he called Dr Yudhoyono's "warm statement", following his letter to the Indonesian President earlier this week.

The Prime Minister said the bilateral relationship depended "a great deal" on intelligence sharing: "I want to deepen and extend that in the weeks and months ahead."

On Monday, Indonesian National Police chief General Sutarman said: "We must crack down on any violations of the law in the country, but if a person intends to go there (Christmas Island), it does not come under our authority."

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority last night refused to comment on whether it continued to co-operate with its Indonesian counterpart, Basarnas, referring all inquiries to Operation Sovereign Borders and Mr Morrison's office.

But last Friday, when Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said all police co-operation with Australia on anti-people-smuggling operations had ceased, he also stated that applied to search and rescue information exchanges between Basarnas, the Indonesian agency and AMSA.

Since early this month, because of tensions between the countries, operational responsibility for activities in the SRR south of Java has been taken over by Mr Djoko's Co-ordinating Ministry for Politics Security and Law.

A Basarnas official said earlier this month, even before the embargo on co-operation was imposed, that TNI, the Indonesian military command, was reluctant for Australian navy and coastguard vessels to enter the SRR.

The Indonesian SRR extends beyond Indonesia's 12 nautical miles territorial waters into international waters as far south as Christmas Island.

Three weeks ago asylum-seekers who were picked up in the search and rescue zone by the Australian navy had to be taken to Christmas Island after the Indonesian authorities said it was not a rescue but a "security" matter and refused to accept the return of the passengers after a tense stand-off at sea.

Additional reporting: Paige Taylor, Lauren Wilson, Ben Packham


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