September 05, 2012
THE federal government is under pressure to clarify whether asylum seekers rescued at sea will be taken to Christmas Island or returned to Indonesia in future.
The development comes in the wake of high-level talks in Jakarta, which have resulted in a deal that will see Australian aircraft given rapid clearance to enter Indonesian airspace to assist in search and rescue operations.
Indonesian Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro gave the green light to the plan on Wednesday, suggesting that he did not envisage any problems in ensuring it was in place before the end of the year.
“This is about saving lives. These efforts could help reduce the deaths at sea,” he said.
The agreement, which will also see Australian planes able to land and refuel in Indonesia, is based on a similar arrangement between Jakarta and the United States.
“What has been discussed is the development of a standard operating procedure for when an SOS signal is received,” Mr Yusgiantoro said.
Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith said he would be “disappointed and surprised” if the agreement was not in place within months.
Transport Minister Anthony Albanese, who took part in the talks alongside Mr Smith and Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare, is expected to return to the Indonesian capital in December to finalise the deal.
The agreement is in response to a string of incidents involving asylum seeker boats sinking in waters between Indonesia and Australia, including as recently as last week when about 100 people are believed to have perished.
But the government is already facing fresh criticism after the talks failed to resolve the issue of where any rescued asylum seekers would be taken in the future.
While the survivors from last week’s tragedy in the Sunda Strait were returned to Indonesia, others rescued in a host of other incidents in recent months have been taken to Christmas Island.
Mr Smith said the decision last week to transfer the survivors to Indonesia was an “operational” one taken by people on the spot trying to save lives.
“It wasn’t a decision made by a minister of the crown sitting in Canberra or anywhere else; it was made by people … on the high seas making a judgment about the safety, welfare and security of people in enormous distress,” he said.
It remains unclear whether Australia will insist that any similar events in the future should be dealt with in the same way.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the talks should have addressed the issue.
“Failure to clarify these issues leaves a dangerous incentive in place for people to get on boats and is putting them at risk,” Mr Morrison said.
The Greens, however, said Australia had an obligation to take responsibility for rescued asylum seekers.
The talks in Jakarta have also resulted in a suite of other measures, already approved, that are aimed at boosting co-operation in search and rescue operations.
Australia will provide Indonesia with satellite communication technology to improve its search and rescue capabilities.
The Indonesian search and rescue agency, BASARNAS, will be given access to ship tracking capabilities to enable it to more quickly enlist the help of merchant vessels.
Australia will provide an additional $4.42 million to fund the measures, which are part of the $38.4 million Indonesia Transport Safety Assistance Package established in 2007.
Mr Smith also signed a broader defence co-operation agreement while in Jakarta that covers counter-terrorism, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping and intelligence, and information sharing.