Indonesia, Rudd Back International Talks on Asylum Seekers

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By Olivia Rondonuwu

Bogor. Indonesia’s president and Australia’s newly reinstated Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Friday backed talks with originating countries to try to stem a tide of asylum-seeker boats staging perilous journeys to Australia.

Barely a week after ousting Julia Gillard in a dramatic party coup, Rudd held talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Indonesia on an issue that looms large at upcoming elections in Australia.

As the leaders met, the problem was highlighted anew when a vessel carrying about 80 asylum-seekers ran into trouble in seas south of Indonesia.

Despite Canberra banishing asylum-seekers to remote Pacific islands for processing, thousands of would-be refugees continue to attempt the sea crossing to Australia every year, often from transit hubs in Indonesia.

Many have died making 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 although he gave little indication after Friday’s talks that he was about to do so.

Following an annual Indonesia-Australia summit in the presidential palace in Bogor, just outside Jakarta, Yudhoyono said “concrete” action was needed — but not just from Jakarta and Canberra.

He said that countries of origin, and countries through which asylum-seekers pass on their journeys, also needed to stop people-smuggling. While many use Indonesia as a jumping-off point to head to Australia, they are not normally Indonesian nationals.

“Everybody must take responsibility and must take concrete action,” Yudhoyono said. “It is unfair if only Indonesia and Australia are burdened with this.

“Indonesia, in cooperation with Australia, will host a meeting,” he said, adding that it would include countries of origin and transit.

He listed Afghanistan, Iran and Myanmar as countries where many asylum-seekers come from, and Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia as transit countries.

“We want these countries to sit together and really find a solution,” he said, without giving a date for the meeting.

Rudd praised Yudhoyono for his “bold initiative,” adding: “This problem of people-smuggling is a problem for our entire region.”

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.

While the two leaders met, the boat carrying scores of asylum-seekers broke down in waters south of Indonesia as it headed to Christmas Island, a common landing point for would-be refugees in Australia.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said two merchant vessels and a navy ship were steaming towards the location of the boat, which was reported to be carrying 80 people and taking on water.

However, the Indonesian national search and rescue agency said later the boat had only developed engine trouble and it managed to fix the problem quickly and continue its journey.

Earlier on Friday in Jakarta, Rudd sought to turn the focus of his visit away from asylum-seekers and towards trade between Australia and Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

“Already Indonesia’s consuming class is larger than Australia’s population,” he told a meeting of business leaders.

“Indonesia should become a vast market place for Australian goods and services and industry.”

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.

Agence France-Presse
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