JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia will not use force on a group of 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, who are aboard a vessel moored in its waters and want to go to Australia, the newly appointed foreign minister told Reuters on Thursday.
A rise in boat people travelling through Indonesian waters in a bid to reach Australia has created a political headache for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, since Canberra’s asylum policy is a hot-button issue a year out from an election.
Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who was sworn into the cabinet last week, said force was not an option to make the Sri Lankans, picked up by an Australian customs vessel and now moored in waters near Indonesia’s Riau islands, leave the vessel.
“Not on our part. Can you imagine these people are already going through terrible suffering in very difficult circumstances and the last thing we would want is to have some kind of forcible action with all it’s possible consequences,” Natalegawa said.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said on Wednesday Jakarta had agreed to let the Sri Lankans go to Indonesia to be processed, although Australian media reported the provincial governor had refused to accept them.
“We are driven to assist, but in the final analysis, it’s not for us to force upon these people what kind of choices they want to make,” added the minister, who previously served as Indonesia’s ambassador to the United Nations.
He added in “this specific case, it’s for the Australian authorities to decide what to do with these people who wish obviously not to come to Indonesia but they wish to go on to Australia”.
Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono held talks last week about a pact to combat people trafficking, including more aid for Jakarta in return for interception in Indonesia of Australia-bound asylum boats.
Rudd has defended the so-called “Indonesian solution” of detention and processing asylum seekers in his northern neighbour on the basis it may prevent perilous sea journeys by boatpeople.
Indonesia’s navy recently intercepted another boat carrying 260 Sri Lankans off the Java coast after Rudd spoke directly with Indonesia’s president over the issue.
The 46-year-old foreign minister said a framework was needed to handle cases and said talks on the issue could include not only Australia but also origin countries like Sri Lanka.
“Basically, we need to ensure that each time we face this kind of situation we are not reinventing the wheel and having a different kind of approach,” Natalegawa added.
“We are not particularly enamoured with this notion of an Indonesian solution” to the problem of asylum seekers being used by some parties in Australia.
“We are not trying to shy away from our responsibilities, but it has to be a shared one,” he added.
Editing by Bill Tarrant