News / Asia

Australia, Indonesia Seek Common Ground on Asylum Seekers

Asylum seekers wait in a police station in Surabaya , East Java province, July 29, 2012.
Asylum seekers wait in a police station in Surabaya , East Java province, July 29, 2012.
Phil Mercer
SYDNEY — Analysts say a deal that could allow Australian forces to enter Indonesian waters to rescue asylum seekers must be carefully monitored to prevent armed conflict. 

The proposal would allow Australian authorities to enter Indonesia's Search and Rescue Zone without permission.

In the past year, hundreds of asylum seekers have drowned off Indonesia’s Java coast en route to Australia by sea, while dozens of boats have issued distress calls.

Jakarta does not have the capacity to respond to each emergency. Within the last week a boatload of asylum seekers ran into trouble near the Indonesian island, Bali, but local authorities were unable to help after darkness had fallen and the Australian navy was left waiting for an official request to respond.

Smuggling gangs

Michael White, a maritime law professor at the University of Queensland, says smuggling gangs believe that, if they call for help, they will be escorted to Australian territory, making their journeys safer and quicker.

"They are developing a technique - I do not blame the refugees, this is the boat crew - of hardly pushing off very far from Indonesia and then calling for assistance and saying they are sinking," he said.

Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa says discussions are underway to establish how and when Australian vessels can enter his country’s territorial waters. Natalegawa says the idea for a maritime agreement between the Asia-Pacific neighbors arose from the Indonesian president's visit to Darwin, last month.

Setting ground rules

White says that the ground rules must be carefully considered to avoid hostilities.

"We certainly would not want a misunderstanding resulting in one of the Indonesian defense forces opening fire on our people. Of course, it should not happen, but it is not impossible. They are armed on both sides," he said.

As discussions continue, more boats carrying asylum seekers attempt to make the perilous crossing from Indonesia to Australia. About 7,000 people have been intercepted by Australian border patrols, so far this year.

Earlier this week, the Australian Navy helped a distressed boat carrying 65 suspected asylum seekers near Sumba Island, off Indonesia.

In Canberra, the government has set up an independent committee to consider the issue of unauthorized migration after it failed to win parliament support for its plan to send hundreds of asylum seekers to Malaysia.

Critics oppose the plan because Malaysia it is not a signatory to the United Nations refugee convention.

Australia grants visas to around 13,000 refugees each year, under various global treaties.

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