The government rebuffed on Tuesday Australia’s claim that Indonesia was responsible for the fate of a group of asylum seekers at the center of a maritime standoff between the two neighboring countries as they were rescued in Indonesia’s search-and-rescue zone.
Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Djoko Su-yanto told reporters at the State Palace on Tuesday that they were Australia’s responsibility because they were rescued by an Australian vessel. “They sent the distress call [to Australia] because they wanted to get help from Australia, not from us,” the minister said. “If the distress call was sent to us, we would have taken them back to
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was quoted as saying by The Sydney Morning Herald earlier on Tuesday that Indonesia must respect international law and should have taken the asylum seekers, who were taken to Australia’s Christmas Island following a standoff.
“These people were in a search-and-rescue situation in the Indonesian search-and-rescue zone,’’ Abbott said. “Now, the normal international law is that if you are rescued in a country’s search-and-rescue zone that country has an obligation to take you.”
The fresh row over the asylum seekers between Jakarta and Canberra deepens with officials from both countries issuing conflicting statements about the issue.
Djoko hit out at Australian Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison who said that Indonesia’s stance on the boat people was confusing, citing the fact that Indonesia accepted two boatloads of asylum seekers before rejecting the two others.
Djoko insisted that Jakarta’s stance on the boat people has never changed. “It is strange for them to say that there is a change because there is no change,” he said.
A spokesman for Djoko’s ministry, Agus Barnas, said that the government’s decision to accept the previous boats did not reflect inconsistency. “It simply depends on the position of the boats. We cannot ignore them if they are closer to our land than to Australia.
“We are not being inconsistent. We have our stance and will stand our ground,” he added.
While Morrison claimed there were two out of four requests rejected by Jakarta, Agus claimed that Indonesia rejected three out of six requests from Australia.
On Monday, presidential spokesman for foreign affairs Teuku Faizasyah said the government only responded to distress calls for humanitarian reasons.
“It means we help those ships in trouble but only as far as we can help,” he said. “Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention; we only help those involved in accidents.”
On Tuesday, Dewi Fortuna Anwar, the deputy for political affairs to the vice president who is currently on tour in Australia and is scheduled to meet with Abbott on Wednesday, said that the two governments were negotiating “people swap” deals. Under the agreement, Jakarta would take asylum-seekers from Australia if Canberra took equal numbers of refugees living in Indonesia. However, neither Morrison nor Djoko claimed to be aware of the plan.
As of October, there have been more than 2,300 refugees and over 7,600 asylum-seekers recorded in Indonesia, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In the last five years, the UNHCR has seen the number of refugees and asylum-seekers in Indonesia seeking UNHCR assistance increase 18-fold — from 385 in 2008 to 7,218 last year. The UNHCR said some arrivals mistakenly saw Indonesia as an easy departure point to Australia and risked their lives on overcrowded boats that would often sink along the way.
Djoko urged Australia to stick with the Jakarta Declaration, which was signed by Indonesia and Australia, along with 11 other countries that are the most affected by irregular movement of persons in the Asia-Pacific, in August. “Australia should not only bring this matter to Indonesia, but they must also involve the country of origin of these asylum seekers,” he said.
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