World

Australian PM calls Indonesian
leader on refugees

Australia's prime minister confirmed Tuesday that he phoned Indonesia's president for help in stopping people-smuggling shortly before Indonesia's navy intercepted a boatload of 260 Sri Lankans bound for Australia.

Australian newspapers reported that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had made a personal plea to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono over the weekend to intervene after Australian intelligence officials discovered that a bat carrying the Sri Lankan men, women and children was leaving Indonesian waters headed for Australia - a common route taken by asylum seekers.
 
The Indonesian navy intercepted the boat Sunday off Krakatoa island and was escorting the Sri Lankans to a port in West Java, The West Australian newspaper reported.

Analysts say the top level approach to Indonesia demonstrates Rudd's fear of a voter backlash against his liberal policies toward refugees, which opponents blame for a tenfold explosion in the numbers of asylum-seekers reaching Australia by boat this year - 1,704 so far, compared to last year's total of 161.

"It would seem a measure of desperation on Rudd's part that he has to be seen to be doing something," Australian National University political scientist Norman Abjorensen said.

The 260 Sri Lankans would have been the largest number of asylum-seekers to reach Australian waters by a single boat since Rudd's center-left government came to power in 2007.

Rudd said he discussed with Yudhoyono on Saturday "our continued cooperation" on people smuggling.

But he declined to say whether he lobbied Yudhoyono specifically about the boat of Sri Lankans.

"I make no apology whatsoever for working as closely as I need with our Indonesian friends and partners to get the results we all need in terms of illegal immigration," he told reporters.

Separately on Tuesday, the government announced that the navy had intercepted a boat carrying 56 asylum seekers near Ashmore Island off northwest Australia.
 
Rudd's political opponents have accused his government of encouraging a recent influx in asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat through new policies that reduce the time would-be refugees spend in detention before their applications are processed.

Rudd's Labor Party government also changed the system so that refugees no longer have to reapply to stay in Australia after five years.

Philip Ruddock, an immigration minister under the previous conservative government that was criticized by human rights groups over its harsh treatment of asylum-seekers, said Indonesia lacked the political will to stop the problem.

"I suspect that while Indonesia will offer cooperation, it won't be possible for them to detain all of the people seeking to come," Ruddock told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

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