CANBERRA – Australia said Saturday it will take a boatload of asylum seekers at the center of a high seas standoff with Indonesia to its Indian Ocean outpost of Christmas Island.
Canberra had requested Indonesia take the group of around 60 people who were picked up by an Australian vessel south of Java on Thursday, but officials in Jakarta had so far failed to agree to this.
“The Indonesian government has advised Australian officials overnight that they are reviewing the request put forward by Australia,” Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement in Canberra.
“While we welcome Indonesia’s review of our request, in the best interests of the safety of the passengers and crew of the rescued vessel and the Australian vessel that has been rendering assistance, earlier this morning I requested Lt. Gen. (Angus) Campbell to transfer the persons rescued . . . to Christmas Island,” he said.
Morrison said the group would then be rapidly transferred to camps on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island or on the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru, in line with Australia’s hard-line policy on asylum seekers arriving by boat.
“They will not be resettled in Australia,” he stressed.
Morrison said the request that Indonesia take the asylum seekers was consistent with the standard practice given the incident took place inside its search and rescue zone and close to its coast. “On two recent occasions, Indonesia has agreed to these requests and facilitated an on-water transfer,” he said.
New Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has vowed to turn asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia, from where many embark on the dangerous journey — when it is safe to do so.
But Jakarta has received the policy coolly, and on Friday an Indonesian official in a text message angrily rejected the idea of asylum seekers being returned to Java.
“The Indonesian government NEVER AGREED to such wishes or policies of Australia,” Djoko Suyanto, coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, wrote in the message. “Australia already has its own ‘detention centres’ in Nauru and PNG. That’s where the asylum seekers should be sent, NOT TO Indonesia.”
The row over the would-be refugees comes as tensions between the two countries have been under pressure following a report that Australian missions across Asia, including in Jakarta, were involved in a U.S.-led spying network.
Abbott insisted Saturday that ties with Jakarta remained positive and were strengthening, but that his conservative government was determined to stop the flow of asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat. “We have good relations with Indonesia, good and improving relations, but we will stop these boats,” Abbott said during a speech in Perth.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has just returned from a two-day visit to Indonesia, backed up Abbott, saying there was a “very good rapport” between the countries.
“When you sit down and go through the list, you can see how closely the Abbott government is working with the Indonesian government,” she said. “Yet all we hear about are a couple of areas of disagreement that will be resolved.”
Morrison said Australia would continue to liaise with Indonesia over search and rescue incidents, which often occur in the waters between the two countries, on a case-by-case basis. “We will continue to honor our commitment to Indonesia to undertake this liaison privately and directly with Indonesian authorities,” he added.
Since the introduction eight weeks ago of Abbott’s so-called Operation Sovereign Borders, a military-led crackdown on people smuggling, 561 asylum seekers have arrived on unauthorized boats. This compares with more than 25,000 over the 12 months to June 30.