YET another group of asylum seekers has reached Australian waters – the fourth in a fortnight – as Indonesian police yesterday admitted they were powerless to stop a rising tide of boatpeople heading for our shores.
Navy patrol boat HMAS Albany intercepted 49 suspected asylum seekers – thought to be mostly Afghan men – two nautical miles off Ashmore Reef, 610km north of Broome at about midday yesterday.
It was the sixth boat to arrive this year, and the 13th since September, when the Rudd Government announced measures aimed at softening Australia’s treatment of refugees from the hardline approach adopted by the Howard government.
This year’s boats have ferried 264 passengers to Australia and 12 crew members – a total of 276 unauthorised arrivals compared with seven boats last year carrying a total of 179 people, including crew.
There have now been 455 unauthorised arrivals since the Rudd Government announced the changes last year.
The latest arrival came as it was revealed yesterday that Indonesia last week also stopped 40 Iraqi asylum seekers from setting off from a tourist harbour in Jakarta bound for Christmas Island in a 20m wooden boat.
Indonesian police have expressed frustration at a lack of laws that would let them prosecute the ringleaders.
Despite naming the man they believe is responsible for organising that failed crossing – an Iraqi, Abu Aqeel Moslem Jubair Alhahbi – they say they cannot act against people-smugglers without the much-anticipated laws.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono promised during a visit by Kevin Rudd to Bali last December that he would push through legislation enabling criminal prosecution of people-smugglers.
However, the laws have not been implemented and at present the stiffest penalties applicable in Indonesia relate only to immigration violations.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, in Bali yesterday for a regional conference on people-smuggling that he was jointly hosting with his Indonesian counterpart, Hassan Wirajuda, denied Indonesia’s failure to deliver on the laws was a sign of weakness in Jakarta’s resolve.
“We’re very pleased with the close working relationship between Australia and Indonesia on all of these matters, including the proposed legislation insofar as the criminalisation of people-smuggling is concerned,” Mr Smith said.
Neither he nor Mr Wirajuda would accept that the latest asylum seeker landing represented an inability on Australia’s or Indonesia’s part to deal with the problem of people-smuggling.
However, Mr Smith admitted that unlawful arrivals in Australia’s northern waters represented “a problem that’s ongoing, and it’s why our naval assets have been enhanced … it does also reflect our appreciation of the very important push factors” causing irregular migration.
He also applauded Indonesia for having “made clear it’s in the process of contemplating legislation” criminalising people-smuggling.
Mr Wirajuda, meanwhile, said he expected Indonesia’s compliance with international norms on people-smuggling to come “quite soon”, but he could not commit to a prospective date.
However, with Indonesia in political limbo following parliamentary elections last week, the legislation could be delayed indefinitely.
National police spokesman Abubakar Nataprawira said: “We handle the cases of people-smuggling, but all we can charge people with, if they enter Indonesia without the correct documentation, is in relation to immigration law,”
Brigadier General Bachtiar Tambunan, head of security and transnational crimes at national police headquarters, said Indonesia was “increasingly” becoming a transit point for people-smuggling activities to Australia.
“Largely they’re from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka,” he said, adding that Indonesians were being used more often to crew the boats.
However, citing a 2007 case, General Tambunan said it was difficult to impose any kind of stiff sentence on those responsible: in that instance, he said, a Sri Lankan named Sandra Babu deemed to have been the organiser of a voyage ferrying 107 asylum seekers to Australia was arrested in Jakarta but sentenced to only two months’ jail.
The 40 asylum seekers blocked from leaving Indonesia last weekend were detained after setting sail from Jakarta’s Ancol tourist park in a 20m wooden boat.
Indonesian police described the group as having tried to get to Australia “more quickly” than others.
The UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration jointly handle requests for asylum by illegal migrants in Indonesia, as Jakarta does not recognise the relevant international covenants on the matter.
The group were already having their asylum claims processed in Jakarta but decided to set out for Christmas Island in frustration at the slowness of that process, police said.
The Rudd Government’s immigration changes included shutting down the so-called Pacific Solution of offshore processing centres, abolishing temporary protection visas and expanding the appeal rights for asylum seekers who lodge claims outside Australia’s migration zone.
The Opposition has criticised the changes, arguing they have given the “green light” to people smugglers.
Referring to the tough suite of measure adopted by the Howard government, Opposition immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone said yesterday: “I would argue that that strategy matches virtually exactly the dropping off of the boats heading on down.”
Despite the apparent success of these measures, Dr Stone refused to commit the Coalition to reintroducing them, should it be re-elected.
Dr Stone said the Coalition was reviewing all its policies, including reintroducing temporary protection visas.
Temporary protection visas were introduced by the Howard government in 1999. In 1999-2000, the number of unauthorised arrivals by boat peaked at 4,175.
Yesterday, Dr Stone played down the correlation.
Dr Stone did, however, rule out reopening the offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island.
“We no longer have that requirement because we’ve got an alternative place which is in our excised migration zone, Christmas Island,” she said.
In Bali, Mr Smith yesterday announced an Australian aid package designed to entice Burma’s military dictatorship in from the cold on its ethnic Rohingya refugee problem.
About 400 Rohingya men are living in squalid conditions in two refugee camps in Aceh, after fleeing what they say is ethnic persecution in Burma.
Mr Smith said the $3.2 million package, which tops up a previous $4 million commitment, would be delivered in Burma through the World Food Program, the UN and CARE Australia.