Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Deal struck on fate of asylum seekers

Ben Doherty, Jakarta
October 21, 2009 - 12:52AM

INDONESIA will take the 78 asylum seekers on board an Australian Customs ship, in a diplomatic breakthrough in talks last night between Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Australia and Indonesia also said they would work on a new agreement on how to deal with future vessels.

A spokesman for Dr Yudhoyono said the Australian ship would be allowed to dock in Indonesia for ''humanitarian reasons''. ''There's a sick child on board, and the president is quite concerned about the health of this sick child,'' he said.

The spokesman said Oceanic Viking would dock at the port of Merak in West Java, where a boatload of 255 Sri Lankan asylum seekers is also berthed.

''The passengers on the (Australian) boat will be allowed to temporarily - and I underline the word temporarily - be accommodated in our territory,'' he said. The passengers, also believed to be Sri Lankan, would then be processed by international officials.

Indonesia's agreement to take the boat follows a stand-off yesterday, in which Jakarta said the 78 people, who have spent three nights on the Oceanic Viking, were not its responsibility.

With a political storm brewing at home about the rise in asylum seeker numbers, Australia was desperate for Indonesia to take the boat.

Agreement was struck during almost an hour of talks at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta between Mr Rudd, Dr Yudhoyono, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and his Indonesian counterpart, Hassan Wirajuda. Mr Smith and Mr Wirajuda also discussed the matter earlier in the day.

Mr Smith described it as ''a very good humanitarian result''. ''It's a very good example of co-operation between Australia and Indonesia''.

Asked whether Mr Rudd had promised Indonesia more money for detention facilities, Mr Smith declined to go into detail. But he said the Government was ''very open'' to increasing assistance to Indonesia and international migration organisations for their work in Indonesia.

Australia is reported to have offered millions of dollars in funding - possibly including incentive payments per person - to Indonesia to intercept and house asylum seekers.

Dr Yudhoyono's spokesman said officials from both nations would meet soon to start work on a new agreement on how to deal with asylum seekers.

This would be presented to the two leaders before the APEC meeting in Singapore in November. ''There is recognition that we're going to face this problem again in the future, and we need a better framework so we don't deal with this on an ad hoc basis,'' he said.

Last night's breakthrough comes four days after the 78 asylum seekers first contacted the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, saying they were in trouble off the Sumatran coast. At Indonesia's request, the boat was intercepted by the Australian navy on Saturday, with the asylum seekers transferred to the Oceanic Viking on Sunday.

While Australian officials thought a deal had been struck, a spokesman for the Indonesian Foreign Ministry put this in doubt earlier yesterday, saying Jakarta was under no obligation to take the asylum seekers.

He said this was because they were picked up in international waters (even though the boat was inside Indonesia's search and rescue zone). He said this was a different situation to the 255 Sri Lankans at Merak, who were picked up in Indonesian waters after a plea from Mr Rudd to Dr Yudhoyono.

A high-ranking military officer told The Age that bringing the new boat to Java was a burden for Indonesia.

''On the one hand we must help people who are in trouble, but on the other hand if we grant permission for the Australian vessel to come to Indonesia we are allowing the Australians to burden us,'' said the officer, who asked not to be identified.

''We are still having trouble trying to help our own people suffering from the recent Sumatra earthquake.''

Immigration officials in West Java said they did not have the resources to handle another 78 people because they were struggling to find accommodation for the 255 people refusing to leave their boat in Merak.

''The local government doesn't have the capacity to deal with this,'' said Harry Purwanto, head of immigration in the West Java province of Banten.

Mr Purwanto said officials had found accommodation for only 100 of the 255, which the International Organisation for Migration had said was not of a required standard.

Tension over the issue increased in Canberra, where Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull echoed the words of John Howards, saying said that Australia should decide ''who comes to this country''. But, at a Coalition parties meeting , Victorian Liberal Petro Georgiou criticised the Opposition's attack on the Government for allegedly going soft.

He said this was bad policy, bad principle and bad politics, and the data did not support the Opposition's argument.

And Victorian Labor backbencher Michael Danby criticised Mr Rudd's description of boat people as ''illegal'' immigrants. ''We can't make judgments about them being illegal because no one has evaluated their status,'' he said.


This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/national/deal-struck-on-fate-of-asylum-seekers-20091020-h6xs.html

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