January 07, 2014 | The Wall Street Journal
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa criticized Australia’s policy toward asylum seekers. Reuters
CANBERRA—Australia’s two-month diplomatic standoff with Indonesia is intensifying following reports that a boat carrying asylum seekers ran aground in Indonesian waters after an Australian warship escorted it away from its own territory.
At a news conference Tuesday, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa criticized Australia’s hard-line policy of turning back asylum seekers who set out from Indonesian waters. He declined to confirm or comment on the most-recent boat incident, which was detailed in conflicting Indonesian media reports.
The Jakarta Post, citing the police chief in the eastern city of Kupang, reported the boat ran aground Monday, while other media reports said the accident occurred last month.
Australia declined to comment on whether its navy had recently turned back an Indonesian boat. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said Tuesday it was the policy of Australia’s conservative government to refrain from giving details of its operations or plans as this could provide intelligence to people smugglers.
Ties between the two nations hit a nadir in recent months in a row over alleged spying by Canberra on top Indonesian officials. Jakarta has previously also expressed reservations about Australia’s policy of blocking boats carrying asylum seekers and sending them back to Indonesia, which is a frequent staging post for refugees from places including Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka.
“Let me put on record our rejection of policies that resemble the pushing back [of the] boat,” Mr. Natalegawa told reporters. “Such a policy is not conducive to a comprehensive solution to the issue.”
The Indonesian media, citing police authorities, reported that 47 asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East were turned around by the Australian navy. Their boat ran out of fuel and foundered on Rote Island, where Indonesian authorities picked them up, according to a state news agency report.
Australia’s Fairfax newspapers, citing unidentified people, said the government wouldn’t stop turning back asylum seekers and instead was considering transferring any found in Australian waters in the future onto powered inflatable lifeboats so that they could be safely transported back across the porous sea border between the two countries.
Australian opposition parties used the occasion to criticize Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s asylum policy. “The question is: Was it safe?” asked Sarah Hanson-Young, immigration spokeswoman for the Greens party. “The reports are that this boat ran out of fuel. There are a lot of questions about how concerned the Australian government is about the lives of these people.”
Mr. Abbott needs the support of the Greens to push legislation through the upper house, where they hold the balance of power.
Asylum is a key plank of Mr. Abbott’s policy agenda. His promise to stop a surge in boat arrivals under the previous Labor government helped his Liberal National coalition win the September election.
The right-leaning government recently stopped announcing attempts by asylum seekers to reach Australia by boat, partly to deter people from making the often-hazardous journey.
The treatment of asylum seekers has been a flashpoint in Australian politics for more than a decade, helping swing the outcome of several closely fought elections as the major parties wrestled to appear better at defending the country’s vast sea borders, covering some three million square nautical miles.
Australia’s alleged spying and its tough asylum policies recently led President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government to withdraw cooperation with Canberra on efforts to counter human-trafficking networks at Indonesian ports.
In November, the United Nations refugee agency criticized Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers on remote Pacific islands, saying Canberra was ignoring humanitarian obligations in the implementation of its refugee policy.
—Ben Otto in Jakarta contributed to this article