JAKARTA: Indonesia and Australia were locked in a high seas stand-off on Friday after Jakarta rejected attempts by an Australian vessel to return scores of asylum seekers to the main island of Java.
The row, which came with tensions already high between Jakarta and Canberra over a spying controversy, prompted fresh questions about new Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s hardline asylum-seeker policies.
The Australian boat picked up some 60 would-be refugees south of Java, where many asylum seekers board rickety wooden vessels to try and reach Australia, on Thursday after a distress call, according to Indonesian officials.
Under Abbott’s tough refugee policies, asylum-seekers arriving by unauthorized boats face the prospect of their vessels being turned back to Indonesia if it is safe to do so.
But Jakarta has previously voiced anger about the policies, and on Friday angrily rejected the idea of the asylum seekers being returned to Java.
“The Indonesian government Never Agreed to such wishes or policies of Australia,” Djoko Suyanto, co-ordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs said in a text message.
“This has been conveyed since the time of [former Australian premier]Kevin Rudd, and there is No Change of policy regarding asylum seekers wanting to go to Australia under the current Abbott government.
“Australia already has its own ‘detention centers’ in Nauru and PNG [Papua New Guinea]. That’s where the asylum seekers should be sent, NOT TO Indonesia.”
He also reportedly said that in previous cases where Indonesia had accepted asylum seekers picked up by Australian vessels, it was only when people were hurt or had drowned.
Thousands of asylum seekers, many from Iran and Afghanistan, board rickety, wooden boats in Indonesia every year to try and make the perilous see crossing to Australia, normally arriving at the Australian territory of Christmas Island.