Australia has praised Indonesia for its efforts in combating people-smuggling and curbing illegal entry to Australia as both countries vow to boost their cooperation in economic and security issues.
Speaking after meeting with his Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr told a joint news conference that Indonesia deserved credit in combating people-smuggling, rejecting earlier criticism from observers in Australia that Indonesia was not serious in fighting the problem.
“It confirms that there’s no relationship more important to Australia than that which we enjoy with Indonesia,” he said.
Marty, meanwhile, said Indonesia has been trying to do its part in tackling people smuggling problems, and worked together with Australian authorities to stop people from coming to Australia.
However, the minister also said that regional cooperation through the so-called Bali Process was needed to fundamentally solve the issue.
“The Bali process is one that has stood the test of time. Of course there is room for enhancement, but the basic approach is a sound one,” Marty said.
The Bali Process is a framework for dealing with asylum-seekers involving more than 40 nations.
Boatpeople are a growing and sensitive issue in Australian politics, with the opposition coalition using it to corner Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s administration as hundreds of people have died in series of accidents when boats full of asylum-seekers capsized while approaching Australia.
The ministers also discussed Indonesian fishermen and minors held by Australia for allegedly helping bring asylum-seekers to Australian shores, with Marty saying that both countries had a better understanding about the issue.
“We also focused on the search and rescue issue and we will work with Basarnas [Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency] to strengthen its ability to communicate better on vessels while we explore and exchange programs of search and rescue specialists,” Carr said.
The Australian minister also welcomed comments from a high-ranking Indonesian Navy officer who said earlier in the day that patrols in the Sunda Strait were crucial to disrupting people-smuggling operations.
The strait, between Java and Sumatra, has become the main thoroughfare for boats dispatched by people-smugglers. It was the route used by the string of vessels that have prompted rescue operations in recent weeks.
“The Indonesian Navy is having coordinated patrols with the Australian Navy,” Indonesian Navy spokesman Admiral Untung Suropati told the Australian Associated Press on Monday. “Coordinated patrols in the Sunda Strait, I think, [are] very crucial in handling people-smuggling.”
Carr said broader maritime cooperation was welcome. “But we can’t dump this problem on Indonesia,” he said.
He also ramped up his attack on opposition leader Tony Abbott’s plan to send asylum-seeker boats back to Indonesia.
“Tony Abbott is badly mistaken and naive if he thinks he can suddenly wave a magic wand and say the relationship is now a thousand times more robust and in that context I can start sending boats back,” Carr said.
Last week, he warned that a victory by Abbott’s coalition in the next election would create a diplomatic disaster in relations between Australia and Indonesia.
Marty also appeared to voice opposition to the coalition strategy, saying the response to the asylum-seeker problem should be one that was “mutually compatible.”
“The perpetrators behind people-smuggling, they find the conditions in Indonesia conducive to continue their operations,” he said.