JAKARTA, Indonesia – Newly reinstated Prime Minister Kevin Rudd held talks on asylum-seekers with Indonesia’s president on Friday, with thousands each year defying deadly perils to try to reach Australia by sea.
As the leaders met, the urgency of stemming the tide of boats setting sail for Australia was underlined when a people-smuggling vessel carrying about 80 asylum-seekers was reported to be in trouble south of Indonesia.
Rudd, on his first foreign trip since ousting Australia’s first female premier Julia Gillard in a dramatic coup last week, is facing calls to take action on the asylum-seeker boats, which will be a key issue in upcoming elections.
Despite Canberra’s tough new policies banishing asylum-seekers to remote Pacific islands for processing, thousands of would-be refugees continue to attempt the sea crossing to Australia, often from transit hubs in Indonesia.
Many have died trying to make the hazardous journey in crammed, rickety boats, normally after paying huge fees to people-smugglers.
Rudd has already drawn Indonesia into the domestic debate, pouring scorn on conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott and his plan to “turn back” the boats, saying this risks a diplomatic flare-up with Jakarta.
In his previous stint as prime minister up to 2010, Rudd relaxed tough refugee controls. He is now under pressure to take a hard line on the campaign hustings.
As he met with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the presidential palace in Bogor, outside the capital Jakarta, Australian officials said that a people-smuggling boat was in distress and reportedly taking on water.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said two merchant vessels and a navy ship were steaming towards the scene, 42 nautical miles south of Indonesia’s main island of Java.
AMSA said someone on the ship, thought to be carrying 80 asylum-seekers, had called rescue authorities to report that they were in trouble and they had last spoken to the boat around 0600 GMT.
The authority was unable to say whether the boat was sinking, but said the merchant vessels could be at the site within an hour or two.
Ahead of Rudd’s visit, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said Jakarta could not solve the asylum-seeker problem alone.
“We have been consistent in saying that this problem cannot be solved by one country,” he said.
“It needs a joint effort from destination and transit countries, as well as countries of origin.”
Rudd insisted that “the full breadth of our relationship” would be discussed during the trip. At a breakfast event with business leaders in Jakarta on Friday, he sought to turn the focus to trade between Australia and Southeast Asia’s largest economy.
“Already Indonesia’s consuming class is larger than Australia’s population,” he said.
“Indonesia should become a vast market place for Australian goods and services and industry.”
Rudd also sought to ease tensions surrounding live cattle exports, which have become a major point of conflict in trade relations, saying he wanted to ensure a “steady supply of beef for Indonesia”.
Australia halted shipments to Indonesia in 2011 after TV footage showed harsh treatment of animals in the Asian country, a move that badly hit the industry in Australia. Shipments have since resumed but in much reduced numbers.
Rudd, a former foreign minister and ex-diplomat, retook the leadership after winning a ballot of Labor lawmakers. They are banking on the 55-year-old to save the party, which under Gillard looked set for a crushing defeat at the hands of Abbott’s opposition.
Gillard had originally set the election date for September 14, but Rudd has indicated it will be moved, without saying exactly when.
Analysts say Rudd will use his two-day visit to Indonesia to try to burnish his leadership credentials on the campaign trail.
Given the record influx of arrivals, Australia’s government is reportedly looking at other options, including stricter assessments and how to repatriate those deemed to be economic migrants. – Rappler.com