SYDNEY, Australia – Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has hailed “very productive” talks with her Indonesian counterpart on the fraught issue of turning back asylum-seeker boats to the sprawling archipelago.
Australia’s new conservative government, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott who swept to power in national polls earlier this month, hopes to deter asylum-seekers from taking people-smuggling boats with the threat of potential towbacks.
Indonesia’s top diplomat Marty Natalegawa had warned Bishop during their meeting in New York on Monday, September 23 that Jakarta could not accept any policy which infringed its sovereignty, Antara news agency reported.
Bishop said she had spoken to Natalegawa about Australia’s military-led operation to shut down people-smuggling networks, which includes forcing their boats to turn around when conditions are safe.
“I had a very productive and positive meeting with Foreign Minister Natalegawa,” Bishop told reporters in New York, according to a transcript from her office.
“I am not going into the operational details of our policy, but I had a very broad-ranging discussion with… Natalegawa and I am confident that we will be able to implement our policies.”
Natalegawa told reporters that “Indonesia cannot accept any Australian policy that would, in nature, violate (our) sovereignty”.
“I think, the message has been conveyed loud and clear and has been understood well.”
Asked whether Natalegawa had indicated that he was unhappy with Australia’s plan, Bishop said: “There can be some misunderstanding as to what our policy is, and it is certainly not to, in any way, show disrespect for Indonesian sovereignty.”
Bishop said she told Natalegawa that Australia would be making changes to its laws “so that we take away the product that the people-smugglers are currently selling – and that is permanent residency in Australia”.
She blamed the previous Labor government of leaving “a complete mess in border protection” which she said encouraged people-smuggling, although boat arrivals slowed sharply ahead of the elections due to their tough permanent resettlement deal for refugees with Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Bishop said that she looked forward to further talks during Abbott’s upcoming visit to Indonesia, where he will meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on September 30.
Abbott’s controversial plan to “stop the boats”, one of his key election promises, includes buying up Indonesian fishing vessels to keep them out of the hands of people-smugglers, embedding Australian police in villages and paying local residents for intelligence.
Labor’s interim opposition leader Chris Bowen voiced skepticism over whether Indonesia would accept the government’s plan, dubbed Operation Sovereign Borders.
“I suspect Natalegawa has made it very clear… that Indonesia would not cooperate with a turnback policy,” Bowen told reporters.
“And I suspect that is why we have not yet seen a turnback under this government, and the government refusing to talk about whether they will turn back boats or not.”
Australia’s new Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has said information about asylum-seeker arrivals will be given at weekly briefings, while turnbacks would not be discussed if they could impact current or future operations.
Bowen said it appeared from reports that another asylum-seeker boat had arrived in the northern city of Darwin overnight, but that Morrison had “gone into hiding” to avoid scrutiny on arrivals. – Rappler.com
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