The Australian navy will not have to seek permission to enter Indonesian waters to search for asylum seeking vessels under a new agreement between the two countries.
01 August 2012
Australian immigration authorities to sign asylum seeking deal with Indonesia
Australian immigration authorities are reportedly in negotiations with Indonesia over a deal which will allow them to patrol Indonesian waters for asylum seeking boats without needing to ask permission.
Asylum seekers entering Australia are currently at record levels and while the political deadlock over how best to deter people from attempting to reach Australia continues, a deal needs to be put in place to ensure the safety of those who do attempt the perilous journey.
Indonesia is thousands of miles away from Australia but the Australian territory of Christmas Island is located much closer and it is here most asylum seekers, who are typically of Middle Eastern origin, try to reach; once in Australian territory, few face the possibility of being returned to their home countries.
While the trip between Indonesia and Christmas Island may be just over 200 miles, the waters are choppy and unpredictable, the boats are often unreliable and crew onboard often have little more than a handheld GPS navigation system, if that, to direct them.
In June, two asylum boats in a week capsized and resulted in the deaths of 94 people bound for Australia, Indonesia originally began the search and rescue operation but was quickly joined by their Australian counterparts; both countries are eager to avoid more incidents.
Australian politics have been embroiled over legislating a suitable deterrent to asylum seeking boats to stop them even attempting the journey but the situation is so politically charged it is unlikely a solution all parties can be happy with any time soon.
Instead, Australian navy and immigration officials are negotiating with Indonesia to formulate an agreement which will allow Australian officials to enter Indonesian waters without first requesting permission.
Asylum seekers know that if they are rescued by Indonesian authorities they will be taken back to Indonesia whereas Australian authorities will escort them to Christmas Island therefore the majority will radio Australia for assistance. Indeed, such is the hubris of some people smugglers, they have been reported to deliberately sabotage boats and call Australia for help immediately after departing.
"There are many illegal migrants coming, especially to Christmas Island, and they are sending distress signals asking for assistance," said Indonesian Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro.
"So Australia's asking us when their patrol boats can enter our waters, what are the rules that apply."
Mr Yusgiantoro said without an agreement in place, the two countries risked naval clashes if both navies respond to a distress call and enter the area with guns raised.
"Rules of engagement," said Mr Yusgiantoro. "For example when two navy battle ships meet their guns should be pointing down. No one should fire."
"They worry that our radar would be catching them, either the air defence system or the maritime radar."
Australia is reportedly to be allowed to enter Indonesian waters by sea and by air, with Australian patrol planes free to search for asylum seeking vessels without the threat of Indonesian fight jets being scrambled.
Mr Yusgiantoro said the deal would allow for both countries to patrol the same waters simultaneously, although he pointed out that this was not a 'joint patrol'.
"So far they have been [patrolling jointly], but actually they're doing it without protection."
The Australian opposition has long criticised the government's response to the ongoing asylum seeker issue; if in government, the opposing Coalition claim they would reinstate much stricter policies which the current government abandoned, policies which include escorting boats out of Australian waters.
Coalition leader Tony Abbott has welcomed the deal however, saying it is important for Australian authorities to be 'out there' and upholding safety at sea.
Yet the opposition immigration spokesperson, Scott Morrison, said it was essential that the deal did not turn the Australian navy into a 'beach to beach water taxi service'.
"We always welcome discussions with Indonesia and working together with Indonesia on these issues but I don't want to see the navy's water taxi service running beach to beach between Indonesia and Australia," he said.
"I don't have a problem with it necessarily but Indonesia would obviously need to retain responsibility as first responder and coordinator in search and rescue operations, certainly in their own waters and certainly within the search and rescue zone."
Mr Morrison said that while Australia's superior equipment should be used to avoid any further disasters but any asylum seekers rescued in Indonesian waters should be returned to Indonesia.
"Any arrangement here would have to clarify that anyone picked up in this situation and rescued in this situation, whether it is in Indonesian waters or in their search and rescue zone, would need to go back to Indonesia because otherwise you are running a water taxi service from beach to beach for people-smugglers and that is not an acceptable outcome.”
Mr Yusgiantoro said he expected a deal could be signed as early as next month.
The Australian Visa Bureau is an independent migration consultancy specialising in helping people lodge applications with the Australian Embassy.