An Indonesian provincial governor refused Tuesday to allow an Australian customs vessel to unload 78 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers, saying Indonesia is not a “dumping ground” for refugees.
Indonesia agreed to take the Sri Lankans on humanitarian grounds after their boat ran into trouble off Sumatra island last week en route to Australia.
They were rescued by the Australian navy and transferred to the Oceanic Viking, an Australian customs boat, which was to deliver them back to Indonesia for refugee processing.
Initially scheduled to unload its human cargo at Merak, western Java, last week, it was diverted for unknown reasons about 900 kilometres north to the Riau Islands port of Kijang.
But Riau Islands Governor Ismeth Abdullah told reporters he had no instructions to accept the migrants.
“We ban the Australian vessel carrying 78 Sri Lankan migrants from coming ashore at Kijang port. We order the navy and the police to enforce this,” he said.
“Unless there’s an order from the president, the ship cannot come ashore. We’re not a dumping ground for other countries.”
The Oceanic Viking has been anchored off Kijang, on Bintan island opposite Singapore, for more than a day accompanied by an Indonesian navy warship.
Indonesian officials from various departments have been unable to explain why the Sri Lankans have not disembarked.
The delivery of the migrants is the first test of a new “framework agreement” between Canberra and Jakarta on handling asylum-seekers.
The sketchy deal was announced last week after a meeting between Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta, amid an upsurge in unlawful boat arrivals in northern Australia.
Indonesia is a major thoroughfare for asylum-seekers hoping to reach Australia illegally by boat with the help of people smugglers.
Rudd has come under attack from the conservative opposition in Australia as being too soft on illegal immigrants.