Australia Admits It Breached Indonesian Territory Blocking Refugee Boats

By Jane Wardell & Matt Siegel 17 January 2014

SYDNEY — Australia will apologize to Indonesia on Friday after its navy breached Indonesian territorial sovereignty several times as part of the government’s controversial policy of stopping boats carrying would-be asylum seekers from entering its waters.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said he had been told earlier this week about the “inadvertent breaches” on multiple days and immediately informed the Indonesian navy.

He said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was unable to reach her Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa to discuss the breaches and that a formal apology would be issued by Australia’s embassy in Jakarta later on Friday.

Acknowledgement of the breaches will likely further strain ties that had already hit their lowest point since the 1990s after recent allegations Australia had spied on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other senior Indonesian officials.

Indonesia downgraded its relations with Australia in November as a result of the embarrassing spying allegations, suspending intelligence and military cooperation, including over asylum seekers.

A protracted crisis between the often uneasy neighbors could have serious repercussions. Indonesia is a major importer of Australian agricultural products such as wheat and live cattle. Australia is Indonesia’s 10th-largest export market.

Morrison said on Friday Australia “deeply regrets” the breaches of territorial sovereignty but at the same time maintained Australia’s right to protect its own borders.

“We have offered the apologies, we have been very clear about what has occurred both with Indonesia and here today,” he told reporters.

“But we won’t let this setback get in the way of the job we were elected to do, which is stop the boats,” he said.

Concerns Over Secrecy

The number of refugees reaching Australia pales in comparison with other countries but it is a polarizing political issue that also stokes tension with Indonesia over border policies that have been criticized by the United Nations and international human rights groups.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s conservative government came to power partly because of its tough campaign against asylum seekers after an easing of border policies by the former Labor government that resulted in a rise in the number of boats.

Its policies include offshore detention centers that hold thousands of asylum seekers, many of whom have fled conflicts in Afghanistan, Darfur, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria.

Abbott’s government is also coming under fire at home over the secrecy surrounding its “Operation Sovereign Borders,” which he recently likened to a war. He has said secrecy is important to prevent “the enemy” receiving information.

On Wednesday, Morrison moved to restrict access to information further even as he touted the operation’s success, refusing to confirm reports that the navy had forced the return of a number of boats to Indonesia in recent weeks.

The UN refugee agency has asked for information from the government, warning that Australia could be breaking international law if it is forcing boats back to Indonesia without proper regard for refugees’ safety.

Friday’s news conference followed Australian media reports about the breaches of Indonesian sovereignty.

Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, the officer in charge of the operation, said the breaches occurred on multiple days by “a vessel or vessels” but declined to give more details.

Many of those trying to reach Australia pay people-smugglers in Indonesia to make the perilous journey in often unsafe boats.

Last year’s spying allegations left relations between the two countries at their lowest level since 1999, when Australia sent troops into East Timor amid escalating violence after Indonesia pulled its troops out of its former colony.