Govt urged to sternly deal with Australia`s boat turn-back policy

With Indonesia`s lack of cooperation in dealing with the influx of refugees into Australia, the Abbott administration is reportedly carrying out unilateral action of forcing refugees back to the Indonesian waters.
Jakarta (ANTARA News) - Indonesia is observing a moratorium on cooperating with Australia on people-smuggling following a spying scandal revealed by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden and reported by the Australian media last year.

The bilateral relations between the two neighboring countries are severely strained following the revelation of a "top secret" document alleging that an Australian intelligence body had intercepted the phone lines of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the First Lady, the Vice-President, and other senior ministers.

With Indonesias lack of cooperation in dealing with the influx of refugees into Australia, the Abbott administration is reportedly carrying out unilateral action of forcing refugees back to the Indonesian waters.

The Indonesian water police informed Fairfax Media that two boats were turned back by the Australian Navy, one on January 6, 2014 and the other in December 2013.

According to media reports, in November 2013, a similar incident occurred, but the Australian government backtracked after Indonesia refused to accept the asylum seekers, who were then eventually transferred to Christmas Island.

The boat that was turned back in January, carried 45 passengers comprising 36 males and nine females. They were mostly asylum seekers from Africa, though several also hailed from the Middle East, according to the Indonesian police sources. The boat that was turned back in December carried 47 asylum seekers from Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, and Iran.

East Nusa Tenggara Provinces Rote Ndao Police Chief Adj. Sr. Comr. Hidayat confirmed on January 6, 2014, that the Australian Navy forced illegal immigrants from Africa and the Middle East to turn back towards the Indonesian waters.

The 45 passengers on the boat were from Sudan, Eritrea, Somali, Ghana, Egypt, Yemen, and Lebanon.

They were entering the Australian sea territory on January 6, but they were immediately forced to turn back towards the Indonesian waters, he noted.

Rote Ndao police picked them up after they were left stranded on an Indonesian island. Quoting the leader of the people on board the boat, Hidayat claimed that the Australian navy provided the illegal immigrants with life buoys and communication equipment before driving them towards the Indonesian waters.

On January 7, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa refused to comment on the incident, but reiterated that Indonesia rebuked the so-called "pushing back the boats" policy.

"I am not going to comment on the specific incident - on the movements of our Navy boats, Australian Navy boats, or the boats carrying illegal migrants themselves. This matter should be handled by the Coordinating Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Ministry," Marty Natalegawa reported during the ministrys Annual Press Statement event in Jakarta.

"But, let me put on record that we strongly reject the push-back policy. Pushing back the boats is not a comprehensive solution to the problem," he added.

Natalegawa acknowledged that Indonesias relations with Australia were still going through a "difficult phase." But, he was confident that the relations between the two nations will get back on track.

Cracking down on the influx of asylum seekers arriving via boats was a key election promise made by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, with the then-opposition leader promising to turn back boats to Indonesia as part of its Operation Sovereign Borders program.

In November 2013, following a row with Indonesia over the spying scandal, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison categorically stated that Australias crackdown on people-smuggling boats is not solely reliant on any partner.

The latest unilateral action of the Australian government was condemned by several Indonesian legislators.

"Such a unilateral approach will isolate Australia from its neighboring countries," Mardani, a legislator from the Justice and Prosperous Party (PKS), remarked.

"It means Australia does not intend to take responsibility of the refugees," he added.

The lawmaker emphasized that the Indonesian government should adopt a stern outlook in dealing with Australias action, but should concurrently mete out humane treatment to the turned-back refugees.

Indonesia should accommodate the refugees temporarily and let them decide what they want to do next, he added.

If the refugees want to go back to Australia, its their right to decide, he noted.

Susaningtyas Nefo, a legislator from the Hanura (Peoples Conscience) Party, reciprocated with a similar view. She pointed out that the government should adopt a stern outlook in dealing with Australias extreme immigration policy.

"The Indonesian government should take a stern stance while dealing with this issue. There should be no ambivalence or hesitation while taking stringent actions," Susaningtyas, a member of the Commission I of the House of Representatives, remarked.

She pointed out that Australia failed to show respect towards Indonesian laws. The Australian Navys behavior is questionable and can have a negative impact on the bilateral relations between the two nations.

The two countries foreign ministers should meet in order to address the problem, she added.

Hikmahanto Juwana, international law expert, considered Australias behavior, as a neighboring country, to be despicable.

"The Indonesian government should strongly protest against the Australian Navys act. Indonesia should ask the Australian government to take responsibility of the refugee problem. In fact, the asylum seekers had intended to go to Australia initially, and not to Indonesia," he claimed.

"If the Australian Navy continues to drive refugees to Indonesia, the Indonesian Navy and the National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) should well-equip the refugees so that they are able to safely reach Australia," he noted.

The government must act sternly against Australias policy on refugees. A stern action is necessary in order to prevent Australia from violating Indonesias sovereignty and from making Indonesia a dumping ground for Australian issues, he pointed out.

Four of the 47 African and Middle Eastern asylum seekers who were forced back to Indonesia in December 2013, claimed they were tortured by the Australian Naval officers.

Mohamed Abdirashid, an 18-year-old Somalian refugee, stated that his right hand was burned using a lighter. He showed his burn injury to the press in a hotel in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, on January 8, 2014.

Three other Somalian refugees were also meted cruel treatment by the Australian Naval officers. They were forced to put their hands on the hot boat engine.

"As a result, they suffered blisters on their hands. The inhumane treatment happened aboard one of the Australian warships," he claimed.

He recollected that on December 8, 2013, his boat carrying 47 refugees left Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi for Australia. Two days later, the boat reached the maritime border between Indonesia and Australia.

Suddenly, three Australian warships stopped the boat and surrounded it for three days.

"We did not receive any food or drink after being stopped and surrounded," he added.

After floating for three days, the boat was towed away by one of the Australian warships. The boat was finally stranded on Rote Island, East Nusa Tenggara, on December 19, 2013.

"We were able to eat only after the Indonesia police gave us some food," Abdirashid noted.

Another Somalian refugee, Marke Abdullah Ahmad, who has a blister on his hand, stated that the three Australian warships entered the Indonesian waters up to seven miles from the Rote Island while trying to drive the refugee boat away.

"We showed the GPS readings to the Australian officers to prove that they had entered far into the Indonesian waters, but they paid no attention," he claimed.

On January 6, 2014, an Australian warship also reportedly violated and entered the Indonesian waters when it was driving away a motor boat carrying 45 Middle Eastern immigrants.

There have been several reported instances on Australias cruelty in dealing with refugees.

Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned Australias indefinite detention of 46 refugees as "cruel, inhumane, and degrading".

The Geneva-based body has urged the release of the 42 Tamilians from Sri Lanka, three Rohingya from Myanmar, and a Kuwaiti.

"Australias indefinite detention of 46 recognized refugees, on security grounds, amounted to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, inflicting serious psychological harm on them," the committee noted in a statement reported by the Australian Associated Press in August 2013. (*)