MORE than 1100 asylum-seekers have been stopped from coming to Australia by boat as the Australian Federal Police and its Indonesian counterpart greatly boost their offshore disruption activities.
As the government continued to fend off criticism it had botched the relationship with Jakarta following a high-seas stand-off over the weekend, The Australian has been told tensions with Jakarta have not had any impact on co-operative law-enforcement measures between the countries.
It is understood that, since September, 1151 asylum-seekers have been prevented from leaving Indonesia, Malaysia or Sri Lanka on 27 boats – almost double the 600-odd to arrive since the government began Operation Sovereign Borders on September 18.
The revelations came as Indonesian government adviser Dewi Fortuna Anwar said talks were being held with the Abbott government on a people-swap deal similar to the former Labor government’s proposed Malaysia deal.
Ms Anwar said under the deal, asylum-seekers intercepted by Australian authorities could be sent to Indonesia in exchange for genuine refugees.
“If Indonesia were to take them, the costs of the burdens (asylum-seekers) would be borne by Australia,” she told the ABC.
“At the same time, Australia will take the same number of people that are already sitting in detention centres in Indonesia.”
The Australian has been told the Abbott government is preparing to restore $67 million in anti-smuggling funding to the AFP, including its special operations budget, although this has yet to clear cabinet.
Special operations can involve an array of measures, from swapping intelligence with Indonesian authorities to paying for their petrol so they can drive into villages and stop boats or arrest smugglers.
Assuming it is approved by cabinet, the restored funding will be spread over the forward estimates period, but front-loaded to ensure its impact is felt sooner rather than later.
The news came as another asylum boat was intercepted, casting a shadow over hopes within government that the smuggling trade had been struck a fatal blow. About 40 asylum-seekers, including a baby, women and children, were brought ashore at Christmas Island yesterday from HMAS Ballarat. They are thought to include Iranians and Rohingyas.
Onlookers said the group seemed calm and in good health as they were ferried ashore on rigid inflatable navy boats. They are thought to have spent Sunday night aboard the Australian warship that intercepted them.
As politicians began arriving in Canberra yesterday, border security emerged as the first major political flashpoint to arise between the parties since the election. Referring to Indonesia’s refusal to accept 63 asylum-seekers rescued by Australia just off the Indonesian coast last week, Labor’s immigration spokesman, Richard Marles, said the Coalition’s border protection policy was already foundering.
“The border protection policy Tony Abbott took to the election is in tatters,” Mr Marles said.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison vented his frustration over the weekend stand-off with Jakarta, saying there was “no rhyme or reason” to Indonesia’s attitude towards receiving asylum-seekers rescued within its own search and rescue area.
On Sunday, Mr Morrison revealed that Jakarta’s refusal to take last week’s asylum arrivals had been the second of its kind. His hand was forced after an Indonesian newspaper reported there had been three previous occasions where Jakarta had refused Australia’s transfer request, a claim disputed by Mr Morrison.
The Australian has been told that on one occasion where Indonesia refused to take the asylum-seekers, the refusal was made because the incident occurred too far away. On two other occasions, Indonesian officials have accepted rescued asylum-seekers.
Officials and insiders familiar with the practice said the Abbott government had sought, wherever possible, to exploit the safety-of-life at sea conventions to ensure Jakarta accepted a greater share of asylum-seekers.
The aim was to return asylum-seekers to their communities, effecting a de facto turn-back, but one done with Jakarta’s consent and co-operation.
There is little doubt within government that Indonesian anger over the recent spying allegations, plus impending local elections, fed into last weekend’s stand-off.
Australian officials take some comfort from the hope that once the spying scandal has receded, relations may thaw.
In spite of the recent tensions, The Australian has been told there has been a major increase in law enforcement activity in Indonesia, as the AFP and Indonesian police ramp up their offshore disruption activities.
More than 20 AFP officers are stationed in Indonesia and in recent months their workload has greatly increased.
While the number of officers allowed to work out of Indonesia is capped by the Indonesians, meaning the Coalition can increase staffing levels only up to a point, it is understood they have been better resourced. That has enabled them to work more closely with the Indonesian police identifying ventures and facilitating disruption activities undertaken by local authorities.
Australia’s overseas spy agency, ASIS, is also heavily involved in the anti-smuggling measures.
Yesterday, Mr Morrison declined to discuss the specifics of the renewed disruption activities, but he said the government was stopping “overwhelmingly” more asylum-seekers from leaving, than were arriving.
He also confirmed that the special operations funding would be restored, subject to cabinet approval.
“We’ve . . . said, ‘Go as fast and hard as you can’, and that’s what they (the AFP) are doing, and Indonesia have been fantastic,” Mr Morrison said. “That’s why we’ve seen, we believe, the much more effective disruption activity.”