SYDNEY: Australia said on Tuesday that it was in discussions with Indonesia on how to deal with asylum-seekers intercepted at sea between the countries, but no people “swap” deals were in place.
Asylum-seekers arriving on unauthorized boats in Australia, often via Indonesia, are a sensitive issue for both sides, and Canberra’s military-led Operation Sovereign Borders to clamp down on them has raised concerns in Jakarta.
The issue flared last week when Australia rescued some 60 asylum-seekers from a stricken vessel inside Indonesia’s search and rescue zone and Jakarta refused to take them back.
A senior adviser to Indonesian Vice President Boediono said on Tuesday that officials were in talks about a deal, under which Jakarta would take asylum-seekers from Australia if Canberra took equal numbers of refugees living in Indonesia.
“They are talking about agreements,” Dewi Fortuna Anwar told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“If Indonesia were to take them, the costs of the burdens would be borne by Australia and then at the same time Australia will take the same number of people that are already sitting in detention centers in Indonesia and then they would be processed.”
But Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said while Australia was working closely with its regional partners including Indonesia, no refugee swap deal had been made.
“The Australian government is not engaged in people swaps,” Morrison said in a statement.
“Our discussions are about handling of passengers rescued at sea, and ensuring people are taken to a place of safety as soon as possible.”
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had earlier said talks were underway with the Indonesian government “on a whole range of matters at a whole range of different levels.”
He repeated his suggestion that Indonesia should have taken the latest group—which was picked up south of Java—because they were in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone.
Instead, they were taken to the Australian territory of Christmas Island, and now face resettlement in Papua New Guinea or the Pacific state of Nauru.
“Obviously, under normal search and rescue rules, people who are picked up in a country’s search and rescue zone go to the nearest safe port in that country . . . we’re discussing this with the Indonesians,” Abbott said.
But Anwar said they were not Jakarta’s responsibility.
“Because they’re not Indonesians. The 65 people are coming from the Middle East,” she said. “Indonesia’s on the way to Australia.