As the dust settles over the spying row that has severely damaged relations between Jakarta and Canberra, Indonesian authorities confirmed on Monday that the Australian Navy had driven a boatload of immigrants attempting to enter their country back to Indonesian waters.
The East Nusa Tenggara Police said they found 45 undocumented migrants from Africa and the Middle East aboard a boat floating adrift in Rote Ndao waters after it had failed to enter Australia.
The immigrants consisted of 28 Somali nationals, nine Sudanese, two Eritreans, three Egyptians and three individuals from Ghana, Lebanon and Yemen, the police said. Among the migrants, nine are women while the rest are men.
'The Australian Navy sent the illegal immigrants back to Indonesia,' Rote Ndao Police Chief Adj. Sr. Comr. Hidayat said as quoted by news portal Antara.
Quoting one of the boat people, Hidayat said that the Australian Navy provided the immigrants with life vests and communication equipment before repelling them into Indonesian waters. 'The Australian Navy knows that the local ship crews will usually put leaks in boats that aim to enter Australian waters, thus they took the initiative to anticipate it,' Hidayat added.
Speaking to The Jakarta Post in a telephone interview, East Nusa Tenggara Police Chief Brig. Gen. I Ketut Untung Yoga Ana confirmed that they had found the illegal immigrants stranded on a remote island in Rote Ndao Regency. 'We have 1,192 islands, but only 44 of them are inhabited. Evacuating the refugees will take time. We have coordinated the evacuation operation with the regional immigration office and the IOM [International Organization for Migration],' he said.
Indonesian Navy spokesman Commodore Untung Surapati said that the boat had departed from Kendari, the capital of Southeast Sulawesi. 'There was no information on how the boat managed to enter Indonesian territory because the Indonesian Navy was not involved in the matter. I was only informed that the immigrants are now being taken care of by the local police and immigration office,' he said.
All of the immigrants are currently being sheltered at a former immigration office in Kupang because the local detention center is overfilled, according to head of the Kupang Immigration Office Silvester Sili Laba.
Jakarta has opposed Canberra's 'turn back the boats' policy and has refused to receive asylum seekers sent back by Australian authorities. In November, the two neighboring countries were engaged in a standoff over the policy before Jakarta froze bilateral cooperation following revelations that Australia had attempted to spy on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his aides.
As of today, the government has yet to announce it will resume cooperation anytime soon, even after Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop came to Jakarta to meet with her Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa, in December.
Office of the Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister, which Yudhoyono tasked with handling people smuggling, said it had not been informed of the incident in Rote Ndao, while downplaying its significance.
Minister's office spokesman Agus Barnas said that even though the government had suspended cooperation with Australia, including on the boat people issue, the government's decision to accept the immigrants was justified for humanitarian reasons. 'Where else should they go if Australia repelled them?' he said.
The Foreign Ministry declined to comment, with spokesman Michael Tene referring the Post to the Office of the Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister.
Australia has expressed confusion about Indonesia's stance on the people smuggling issue. Australian Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison said in November last year that there was no 'rhyme or reason' to why Jakarta accepted certain asylum seekers and refused others.
According to the UN High Commission for Refugees ( UNHCR ), the number of refugees and asylum-seekers in Indonesia seeking UNHCR assistance over the last five years had risen from 385 in 2008 to 7,218 in 2011.