Indonesian authorities report refugee boats pushed back by Australian Navy

Correction — January 21, 2014
This article describes the asylum seekers' vessels as "ships", whereas the sources indicate they were boats. We apologize for the error.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Christmas Island (left), Rote Island (right).
Image: OpenStreetMap.

The Royal Australian Navy towed back arriving asylum seekers to Rote Island, Indonesia, after claiming Christmas Island destination, Indonesian National Police reported Monday of last week. Last Thursday, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott supported lack of transparency on the issue.

Indonesian police found the two ships reportedly forcibly towed back from Australia on December 19, and on January 6 after being towed on New Year's Day. A self-identified Sudanese asylum seeker from one of the boats reported the Navy ship numbers, identifying them as HMAS Parramatta and HMAS Glenelg, and said the refugees were denied access to navigation tools during the duration of the route and abandoned in sea in the middle of the night. Commenters called such practice "push-backs", "tow-backs", "turn-backs".

Police chief Hidayat Rote Island, speaking to Fairfax Media, said the second boat was adrift: "They were rescued by the locals, because the boat engines were dead. The boat now is wreckage, near some reefs."

The Australian government had also planned to purchase additional lifeboats for refugee expulsion from Australian waters, Fairfax Media reported.

Australian government originally had no response, but after protests by Labor and the Greens, Tony Abbott commented. Last Thursday, he supported lack of transparency on the issue by saying "I'd rather be criticised a bit for being a bit of a closed book on the issue, and actually stop the boats. I'm pleased to say that it's now several weeks since we've had a boat, and the less we talk about operational details on the water, the better when it comes to stopping the boats."

Defence Force chief David Hurley also claimed professional behaviour of board officers and the Navy when handling arriving refugees boats.

Indonesian National Armed Forces chief General Moeldoko said according to the Jakarta Post, and an Australian Defence Force spokesperson confirmed, that they agreed on the push-backs approach mid-December with no further comment; with Mr Abbot calling the relationship "very strong", while Indonesia's legal and security affairs minister Djoko Suyanto and foreign affairs minister Marty Natalegawa both disapproved of the approach. General Moeldoko reportedly later said the media had misreported him.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNRA) was seeking explanation from the Australian government, it reported in a press briefing this Saturday. The UNRA spokesperson, Babar Baloch, raised legal concerns by saying that "Any such approach would raise significant issues and potentially could place Australia in breach of its obligations under the Refugee Convention and international law. If people who are in need for international protection seek a country's safety, then they must be allowed to go through a process which helps to determine if these people are in need."

Marke, another self-identified Somali asylum seeker, claimed earlier similar treatment, on December 10: that the Australian Navy — HMAS Parramatta and HMAS Maitland — had claimed Christmas Island destination, towed his boat for several days, and subsequently dropped at an undisclosed location.