Jonathan Pearlman, Telegraph (London), January 7, 2014
Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, has deployed the navy to force back boats carrying asylum seekers from Indonesian waters for the first time, leaving the boats to run aground on a remote island.
Indonesian sources said two boats carrying groups of about 45 Middle Eastern and North African asylum seekers were “pushed” back into Indonesian territory by the Australian navy.
Mr Abbott, elected last year after running on a hard-line pledge to “stop the boats”, would not confirm the incidents.
The move could further strain relations with Indonesia, which have been damaged in recent weeks by revelations that Australian spies targeted Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian president, and his wife.
Following the revelations, Indonesia said it would stop cooperating with Australia in stemming the flow of asylum seekers.
In the past six years, more than 50,000 have attempted the perilous voyage in rickety boats from Indonesian transit camps to Australian waters; more than 1,000 are believed to have drowned.
Indonesia’s foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, said Jakarta firmly rejected any policies “that resemble the pushing back the boat”.
“Such policy is not actually conducive to a comprehensive solution to the issue,” he said.
Australia’s immigration minister, Scott Morrison, said he could not comment because of “operational security reasons”.
International law experts have tended to give mixed views on whether it is lawful to turn back a boatload of asylum seekers to another nation’s waters.
Mr Morrison stipulated that the Australian navy had not “violated Indonesian territorial sovereignty”.
An Indonesian police chief on Rote Island, Indonesia’s southernmost point, said two boats had arrived in recent weeks after being pushed back by Australian navy vessels.
The first boat, carrying passengers originally from Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea and Iran, was intercepted on December 13 by the Australian navy and “pushed” back to the island on December 19. A second boat, carrying mostly Africans, landed on the island on Monday.
The use of the navy to turn back boats has come under heavy criticism in Australia, with opponents saying such operations are dangerous and can lead to boats sinking.
Sarah Hanson-Young, a Greens MP, said Mr Abbott was acting with “sheer arrogance” and endangering the lives of both navy personnel and refugees from war-torn countries.
“These are refugees who’ve fled places like Sudan, Eritrea, Iran, Syria–these are war-torn areas–and then just to leave them in the ocean rather than offering them a way of having their claims assessed and to deal with their needs as refugees is just callous,” she told ABC News.
“These people could have drowned. How many other boats has this occurred to that we’ve never heard about?”
Labor last year warned that turning back boats could lead to conflict with Indonesia, a country which at times has had frosty relations with Australia.
Dr Michael White, a former Australian navy lieutenant-commander, said last year that the boats carrying asylum seekers are mostly unseaworthy fishing vessels and “don’t tow very well”.
“A willy-nilly policy of turning back the boats is totally unfair on our naval forces, on our customs sea-going forces and on our Australian federal police forces who are called in to go sea,” Dr White, now at Queensland University, told SBS News. “It is a dangerous and difficult job to board another vessel at sea.”
The Abbott government has taken a tough stance towards asylum seekers including detaining all arrivals by boat in detention centres on remote Pacific islands.
Following claims that authorities at the detention centres have restricted access to sanitary products, protesters have urged people to send tampons to the immigration minister, Mr Morrison.
“Our demand is simple–stop the ritual humiliation of women,” said the website Mama Mia.
Mr Morrison has denied the claims.