| 24.01,12. 01:14 AM |
Jakarta slams Abbott boat plan
January 24, 2012
THE Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, sought yesterday to defend his party's renewed policy of turning back all asylum boats at sea as the approach was attacked by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Indonesian authorities and a former naval chief as dangerous and breaching international law.
Expressing alarm at the Coalition's border protection stance, the UNHCR regional representative, Richard Towle, said: ''Any such blanket approach would potentially place Australia in breach of its obligations under the refugee convention and other international law obligations, and - as past experience has shown - is operationally difficult and dangerous for all concerned.''
Indonesia's police also questioned whether Mr Abbott's policy of using the navy to turn boats laden with asylum seekers back to Indonesia contravened international law, amid widespread disquiet in the country about the opposition's hardline position.
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''As far as asylum seekers go, they fall under international law,'' said Saud Usman Nasution, the chief spokesman for Indonesia's national police. ''You can't turn them away. You have to hand them over for processing to UNHCR, just like Indonesia. We don't turn them away, we hand them to UNHCR for processing.''
The former chief of the defence force and head of navy under the Howard government, Admiral Chris Barrie, told ABC Radio it was not possible to ''mount an impermeable barrier at sea''.
''Irrespective of any government's policy, I'm sure our officers will act in accordance with international law and the safety of life at sea conventions,'' Admiral Barrie said. ''Policy can't override international law and cannot tell a commanding officer what decisions he must make at sea at the time.''
But Mr Abbott defended the Coalition policy, which he said had been acted on by the Howard government in 2001.
''The navy has done it safely before - no reason why they can't do it safely again,'' Mr Abbott said. ''I have full confidence in the professionalism of the navy to carry out the reasonable instructions of the elected government.''
The government had been seeking to strike a compromise with the Coalition to allow the processing of asylum seekers in Malaysia and Nauru and solve the border protection impasse, whereby boat numbers have surged since the High Court struck down offshore processing.
Mr Abbott said the Coalition had sent a letter to the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, last week, giving a deadline for the government to respond to the Coalition on certain issues before discussions resumed.
But before any meeting, the Coalition has highlighted its policy of turning back all boats, saying it will need to boost the navy and to travel to Indonesia to deliver the tough message.
Its immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, said a Coalition government would ''fix things up on our side of the fence'' and expect the Indonesian government to ''do more'' to stop vessels.
Asked whether Indonesia would accept the forced return of boats, Mr Abbott said: ''The legal home of these vessels, Indonesian flagged, Indonesian crewed, Indonesian ported, is in Indonesia.''
A spokesman for the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, declined to offer an opinion on the policy, saying his country did not intervene in Australia's political arguments.
But the spokesman, Teuku Faizasyah, said any solution on boat people had to be made co-operatively by regional countries.
In an interview in 2010, soon after Mr Abbott became Opposition Leader and began pushing his policy of towing back boats, Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, told the Herald the idea was ''backward''.
The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said Mr Abbott's policy would ''put Australian lives at risk'' and senior naval officers had said it was risky.
Admiral Barrie said vessels must be seaworthy, navigable and the passengers in good condition before a boat could be turned around under international law.
Only two other countries are known to have pushed boats back - Italy sent boats back to Libya in 2009 and Thailand pushed Rohingya Burmese out to sea - and both countries have now stopped the practice.