Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, pictured with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop, says "issues" remain between the two countries.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa,
pictured with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop, says "issues"
remain between the two countries. Photo: Tatan Syuflana

The turn-back of two groups of asylum seekers on Monday has
put further strain on the Australia-Indonesia relationship after
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa launched another stinging
criticism of the Abbott government's boats policy. .

Indonesian officials confirmed that two boats of asylum seekers
were intercepted by Australian naval or Customs vessels in recent days
and their 20 passengers put together onto one wooden vessel and pushed
back towards Indonesian waters.

Dr Natalegawa said there were a few “issues” between the two countries, but that the boat policy remained a problem.

“[The existence] of a problem has been confirmed by the return [this week],” Dr Natalegawa said.

“[That boat] has been forced back. It proves that Abbott’s
policy is not successful. Their unilateral policy coerces asylum
seekers, threatens them and violates their human rights — and the policy
doesn’t bear fruit [because the boats keep coming] …

“What Australia is doing now is clearly against and denies
all comprehensive principles in dealing with the issue of asylum
seekers. Australia is acting as if it can simply move the problem to its
neighbour,” he said.

Dr Natalegawa was speaking outside a conference that Prime
Minister Tony Abbott hastily withdrew from on Friday allegedly because
of embarrassment over the imminent boat return.

However, that’s not the explanation Mr Abbott gave the
Indonesians — and which was accepted by President Susilo Bambang
Yudhoyono — that he was too busy preparing the federal budget and
dealing with the Commission of Audit report.

Dr Natalegawa said there had been “no detailed explanation of
the reason for his absence” and that it was “up to the Australian
government to provide information”.

A spokesman for the Indonesian Co-ordinating Minister for
Legal, Political and Security Affairs, Djoko Suyanto, also criticised
the policy.

“The policy of sending the boats back creates uneasy
relations … It is unfortunate that Mr Abbott failed to come to Bali,
otherwise both heads of state could have sat and talked over the
problems together,” said spokesman Agus Barnas.

Mr Agus confirmed on Tuesday that 20 asylum seekers turned
back by Australia had arrived on one boat but actually came from two
different vessels intercepted by Australian authorities in the same

The two boats are the eighth and ninth confirmed to have been
returned to Indonesia under the Operation Sovereign Borders policy.

Some details remain sketchy, but Mr Agus said the first boat,
carrying 18 asylum seekers of mixed nationality plus three crew, left
from Makassar, South Sulawesi, towards the end of April. The second boat
carried just two Nepalese people and one Indonesian crew member, and
had left from Rote island in Indonesia’s east on about May 1.

According to a statement released by the Indonesian navy late
on Monday night, the larger boat was intercepted by Operation Sovereign
Borders vessels on May 1 near Ashmore Reef, an Australian territory in
the ocean west of Darwin.

The asylum seekers on that boat said they had been escorted
in their wooden vessel closer to Indonesia where, on Sunday, the three
men from the other boat were put on board.

The wooden boat was then directed towards Indonesian
territory and left behind by the Australian navy. It ran out of fuel or
the engine broke down at Lay Island in Indonesia’s remote eastern
province. The men were stranded there before being found by Indonesian
navy personnel, the statement said.

The 20 are now in immigration detention in Kupang, West
Timor, while the crews were being questioned at the local navy office,
Mr Agus said.

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has refused to comment on the turn-back.