SYDNEY— Australia's government has acknowledged its navy breached Indonesian territorial sovereignty as part of its controversial policy to stop boats carrying asylum seekers. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the incursions were “inadvertent,” but they could nonetheless further enflame tensions with Indonesia.
Australia has apologized to its northern neighbor after its navy entered Indonesian territorial waters several times without permission. Canberra will not say what its ships were doing, but has previously insisted that boats carrying asylum seekers from Indonesia would be forced to return by the military.
Reports have said that some vessels have already been turned around, although there has been no confirmation from Australian officials. The tow-back policy has angered Jakarta, which believes it would violate its sovereignty.
Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has downplayed the suggestion that this episode will further damage bilateral ties that were strained by a spying scandal last year.
“Having an open and honest relationship and a positive relationship is one where you can raise these sort of matters when they occur and do so frankly and keep people informed and that's exactly what we've been doing,” said Morrison. “There are often difficult times in relationships and these current few months have, I think, been a case like that. But it's how you conduct the relationship in those difficult times that I think is important.”
Critics accuse Canberra of disregarding its neighbors in pursuit of a hardline asylum policy. Australia’s conservative government has pledged to stop a steady flow of unauthorized arrivals trying to reach its territorial waters from transit points in Indonesia. Many pay people-smugglers to make the perilous journey in often unsafe boats after fleeing conflicts in places like Afghanistan, Darfur, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria.
Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the repeated and embarrassing breaches of Indonesian sovereignty prove the tow-back policy will not work.
“The minister is begging for forgiveness meanwhile carrying on that was always going to lead to this type of disaster,” said Hanson-Young.
The U.N. refugee agency has also warned that Australia could be breaking international law if it forces boats back to Indonesia without proper regard for passengers’ safety.
Australia grants visas to about 20,000 refugees each year under various international agreements.