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Australia, Indonesia to Continue Illegal Immigration Talks - 2001-09-07

Three Australian Cabinet ministers have failed to secure a meeting with Indonesia's president, aimed at stemming the flow of illegal immigrants through Indonesia to Australia. Authorities in Jakarta have also rejected Australia's offer to build a detention center for illegal immigrants in Indonesia.

Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock and Defense Minister Peter Reith have been in Jakarta this week for high level talks with Indonesian officials on joint measures to curb people smuggling.

But officials say President Megawati Sukarnoputri was too busy to meet them. She had also refused to return calls from Australia's prime minister, John Howard, last week to discuss pressing illegal immigration issues.

Officials in Jakarta also formally rejected Australia's proposal to fund the construction of a new detention center in Indonesia for illegal immigrants caught trying to transit on their way to Australia.

However, Indonesia says it would be willing to accept financial assistance to bolster security and capacity at more than a dozen existing immigration facilities throughout the archipelago.

Many of these centers are poorly guarded and allow immigrants, mostly from the Middle East and South Asia, to come and go freely.

More talks will be held next week to discuss the possibility of extraditing suspected people smugglers from Indonesia to Australia. Mr. Downer said he's pleased with Indonesia's response on this point. "This is a preference of theirs to their proposal of building a new detention center. So we warmly welcome this, and we are - and where it's appropriate - willing to provide assistance to them in strengthening the capacity of their existing detention centers," he said.

The problem of illegal immigrants reached a head last week when Australia turned away more than 400 asylum-seekers rescued by a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa.

Australia argued that Indonesia should take the illegal immigrants, but Indonesia refused. The asylum-seekers are now on board an Australian navy vessel on their way to Papua New Guinea, where they'll board flights to New Zealand and Nauru. Officials there will process their claims for refugee status.

In recent years, thousands of illegal immigrants have traveled to Indonesia before boarding wooden boats to journey to Australia.