Indonesia: Row looms over refugee turnback

Relations between Canberra and Jakarta have taken another blow with revelations that a boatload of Sudanese and Somalian asylum seekers were forced back into Indonesian waters by an Australian warship.

According to reports in the Indonesian media the boat, with about 45 people on board, later ran out of fuel and grounded on Rote Island, 500km northeast of the Australian mainland and 170km from Ashmore Reef, its apparent destination. Indonesia has consistently and adamantly rejected Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s policy of turning back boats “where it is safe to do so”, and has warned that it would regard forced returns as a violation of its sovereignty.

Late yesterday there had been no official response by Indonesia to the reports, and Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has refused to confirm or deny them under the policy of strict silence imposed by the Government’s Operation Sovereign Borders.

The Government launched the military-led operation after its September election landslide in a bid to emulate former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard’s success in dramatically reducing boat arrivals.

The effectiveness of the new measures is difficult to judge under the blanket secrecy imposed by Abbott – including defiance of a Senate order to disclose details – which has allowed only limited information to be released at weekly briefings.

At last year’s final briefing Morrison claimed an 87 per cent fall in boat arrivals over the previous three months – although arrivals had already been rapidly slowing under Labor’s draconian measures and the approach of the monsoon season.

But official silence has allowed the Government to avoid the constant blow-by-blow coverage suffered by Labor under its policy of open disclosure. Morrison claimed that silence on “operational matters” was needed to prevent intelligence reaching people smugglers.

Yesterday Morrison said he would not comment on the reported forced return of the asylum seekers: “For operational security reasons, the Government does not disclose, confirm or otherwise comment on reports of on-water activities in relation to Operation Sovereign Borders. … It is not the policy or practice of the Australian Government to violate Indonesian territorial sovereignty. Any suggestion to the contrary is false.”

The incident reportedly occurred last month, when the boat was intercepted by the Australian Navy en route to Ashmore Reef. The action has only just emerged after the Indonesian media picked up reports on Twitter by human rights activists. The Indonesian Government news agency Antara quoted regional police chief Hidayat as saying the boat left South Sulawesi on December 8, but was intercepted five days later and “pushed” back to Indonesian waters. The asylum seekers were arrested on December 19 after the boat exhausted its fuel supply and ran aground on Rote, Hidayat told Antara.

Shortly after Abbott won power the Indonesian rescue agency Basarnas refused an Australian bid to hand over asylum seekers rescued from two boats. Indonesia also refused to allow a boat to be turned back in November. Abbott had already inflamed Indonesian anger by the turnback policy he announced as Opposition leader.