Asylum Seeker Pact Starts A New Deal

Asylum seeker pact starts a new deal

The Brisbane Times
October 20, 2009

INDONESIA will take the 78 asylum seekers on board an Australian Customs ship in a diplomatic breakthrough following talks last night between the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The two nations also decided to work on an agreement to deal with future vessels.

A spokesman for Dr Yudhoyono said the boat would be allowed to dock in Indonesia for ''humanitarian reasons''.

''There is a sick child on board the boat. The President is quite concerned about the fate and welfare of the child,'' the spokesman said.

The Customs ship, Oceanic Viking, would dock at the port of Merak in West Java, where a boatload of 255 Sri Lankan asylum seekers is also berthed, he said.

Indonesia's agreement to take the boat followed an unexpected stand-off yesterday, in which Jakarta said the 78 people on board were not its responsibility.

The deal was struck during almost an hour of talks at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta between Mr Rudd, Dr Yudhoyono, the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, and his Indonesian counterpart, Hassan Wirajuda.

''It's a very good example of co-operation between Australia and Indonesia,'' Mr Smith said afterwards. ''And it's a very good example of Australia quite correctly discharging its humanitarian and safety at sea obligations.''

The President's spokesman said officials from both nations, including naval officials, would meet within a week to start developing a new framework on how to deal with asylum seekers.

He said a proposed framework would be presented to the two leaders before the APEC meeting in Singapore in November. ''There is recognition that we're going to face this problem again in the future, and we need a better framework so we don't deal with this on an ad hoc basis.''

The asylum seekers contacted the Australian Maritime Safety Authority by phone four days ago, saying they were in trouble off the Sumatran coast. At Indonesia's request, the boat was intercepted by the Australian Navy on Saturday, and the asylum seekers were transferred to the Oceanic Viking on Sunday.

With a storm brewing at home over the number of asylum seekers arriving by sea, Australia was desperate for Indonesia to take the boat.

Australian officials thought a deal had been struck, but a spokesman for Indonesia's Foreign Ministry said earlier yesterday Jakarta was under no obligation to take the asylum seekers because they were picked up in international waters (although the boat was inside Indonesia's search and rescue zone).

The spokesman had said it was a different situation to the 255 Sri Lankans docked at Merak, who were picked up in Indonesian waters after a direct plea from Mr Rudd to Dr Yudhoyono.

The Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, said that under international maritime law the people should have have been taken immediately to the nearest safe port, ''in this case in Indonesia''.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald