Kevin Rudd, stuck and becalmed in Merak
Australia's Prime Minister dreams of an Indonesian Solution that fails within a week
Kevin Rudd's Indonesian solution, where boats could possibly be sent back to Australia's northern neighbour for asylum claims processing instead of welcomed by Australia and its well developed processing systems, came unstuck as fast as it was dreamt up during October 2009.
Australia's PM may have made "that phone call" to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, promising even more funding "to stop the boats" before they would arrive in Australian waters, and to detain those who were intercepted by Indonesia on their way to Australia's refugee protection zone, but he had not counted on the different layers of decision making and local resistance, down from SBY to provincial governors, local officials and harbour masters.
Kevin Rudd, ably assisted by Australia's naval 'border protection fleet' and the Australian Federal Police, assisted by Indonesia, was able to stop a boat with 255 Tamils, fleeing Sri Lanka and then Indonesia - but the asylum seekers kept refusing to disembark in the harbour of Merak.
Next came the issue of the Australian vessel the Oceanic Viking, which intercepted in Indonesian waters 78 Sri Lankans, bringing them to the Merak harbour. The arrival was followed by a change of plans, and eventually - after an extraordinary sojourn around the ocean - Ocean Viking arrived at Tanjung Pinang, close to Singapore, the place where a detention centre for asylum seekers was built with Australian money.
This web page includes news that asylum seekers locked up in that detention centre were beaten and abused.
But even after weeks of negotiations and international media interest, the Sri Lankans on both boats refused to disembark.
The Prime Minister also underestimated the fury in Australia and the disengagement in Indonesia that turned into indignation as time passed by, and the criticism from right around the world with his 'stand-off strategy'.
Union leaders, seasoned advocates, experienced activists and media commentators started speaking out. And in a sign that the unfolding events were not a repeat of what took place in 2001 around the MV Tampa, journalists asked the questions that needed to be asked. Not all of the questions were asked, but many more than during 2001 and the years beyond that disastrous time.
At Project SafeCom we spent a good deal of time preparing an extensive briefing for Human Rights Watch's Asian Division through the New York office before connecting to them by phone. We followed that up with many emails.
What's on this page
This page brings together some photographs sent by Sri Lankan asylum seekers on board the ship anchored in the Merak Harbour, and some snippets from the huge media coverage during October and November around Kevin Rudd's plans to establish his Indonesian Solution. This page does not claim to be an overview of the issue, but there is an oblique accent on the complicating Indonesian factors in the background.
Indonesia, under the government of 'SBY', is a democracy on its way to more accountability and less corruption, but it still lacks the essential human rights foundations and may not show sufficient interest in the Australian government's plans. A glimpse of this is shown through press items from local Indonesian media and some BBC reports. These news items follow the reports of Australian community reaction. The page ends with reports that include responses from human rights bodies, including Human Rights Watch.
Project SafeCom Media
21 September 2009: Seeking asylum: Non-protection horrors in Indonesia - An expose of media debate and coverage of the rapidly detoriorating warehousing situation in Indonesia, sponsored by the Rudd government - where the International Organisation for Migration, UNHCR Jakarta and the Australian and Indonesian government all 'assist' to wreck the lives of thousands who seek protection and a better life in Australia.
Click the links below to jump down to the articles and items on this page with the same title.
Human faces: the 255 Tamils in Merak
Click on the thumbnails to open a large size photo in a new browser window.
ACTU: statement in support of the humane treatment of asylum seekers
Australian Council of Trade Unions
Leaders of Australian unions meeting in Canberra today issued the following statement in support of asylum seekers:
Australia has a proud history as a tolerant, compassionate and multicultural nation, and people from all over the world have contributed to our development.
In recent months, there has been an increase in the numbers of people fleeing turmoil in the world, including from conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka.
This has led to a small increase in those people coming by boat to seek asylum in Australia. It should be recognised that these numbers are small in comparison to those people fleeing to other nations and in comparison to those who come to Australia by plane and overstay or breach their visa requirements.
Unions call for international action to achieve peace, equitable development and decent work for all to address the push factors which are affecting this situation and we reaffirm our strong belief that asylum seekers should be treated with respect and dignity.
We must not return to that shameful period in Australia's history where children were locked up in detention centres and Australia avoided its international obligations through processing refugees off shore. We do not want to see a return to the inhumane temporary migration visas that put families in limbo for years.
Australian unions are extremely disappointed with the use of rhetoric to demonise asylum seekers who are fleeing dangerous situations in their home countries and have asked Australia for help and safety.
The demonisation of asylum seekers for political gain, or the abrogation of Australia's international obligations towards refugees is not in the national interest and does enormous damage to Australia's international reputation and standing.
We call for strong leadership from all sides of politics to counter these views and ensure that asylum seekers' rights are respected.
The focus of the immigration policy debate should not be the small number of people who arrive by boat, but the role immigration plays in determining the future of our population and workforce, and the role Australia plays in addressing humanitarian crises in our region.
Unions believe fair, permanent migration benefits the whole community and enriches our culture and society. It also contributes significantly to our economic growth.
Unions however are very concerned about the exploitation of those workers who arrive on temporary migration visas or guest visas. In Australia, unions have witnessed unscrupulous agents and employers use temporary migration visas to exploit workers: rorts where workers are underpaid, forced to pay for poor housing conditions, and/or to work in unsafe workplaces.
Not only are such actions unjust, they also undermine the safety and the wages and conditions of Australian workers. Unions call on the Government to take firm action to ensure the rights of asylum seekers and all migrant workers are respected.
Indonesian solution inhumane: refugee advocates
Refugee advocates say the Rudd government's Indonesian solution to the asylum-seeker problem is the same as the Howard government's Pacific solution, except worse.
Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Collective said he was astounded by how closely the Indonesian solution mirrored the Pacific solution, adding: "To me, that is a disgrace, because in this one, we'll be locking people up in appalling conditions in Indonesia, with no hope, really, of resettlement anywhere.
"Nobody, and especially not Kevin Rudd, is demanding that if these people are refugees, they be resettled in Australia, and if that's not part of the plan, all you have is a rebadged Pacific solution," he said.
"The Prime Minister is saying there are ... important differences, but he hasn't gotten rid of offshore processing, so he's trying to build a policy on rotten foundations and it's collapsing.
"I think there were people among the refugee advocates who are shocked at what Rudd has done in the last week.
"He needs to get on the front foot and say: 'Australia is a compassionate country and it will be resettling refugees'."
Refugee advocate John Highfield, of the Asylum Seeker Interest Group, said the Indonesia solution was "worse than Tampa".
"We never thought we'd see a Labor government do this," he said. "The chief of police in the Indonesian port has already said that if they do not get off willingly, he will use force.
"What is the Australian government doing, sending children into a situation where force is being threatened?"
Mr Highfield yesterday wrote to Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor, reminding him the "Australian people did not elect the Rudd Labor government to implement even worse human rights behaviour towards refugees and asylum-seekers than under the Howard Coalition government."
Jane Keogh, of the Canberra-based Refugee Action Committee, said her group, which had dwindled to four active members and had been meeting only once every two months, regrouped and met yesterday specifically to discuss the Indonesian solution.
"With this solution, we have no control over whether people are being treated humanely," she said. "And the Rudd government isn't saying that if they are actually refugees, Australia will take them."
Jack Smit of the WA-based Project SafeCom, said: "To me, it's like the dark days after the Second World War, with this boat floating around and nobody wanting to take it.
"Rudd is trying to say it's Indonesia's problem but that's actually a little convenient lie. It's Australia's problem and Kevin Rudd knows it."
Former immigration minister Philip Ruddock said the Howard government had wanted to work alongside Indonesia, too, but he doubted Indonesia would do much to help Australia.
"Indonesia has sensitivities about this," Mr Ruddock said.
"They have agreed to assist but it has all the appearances of being done under duress.
"When I was in government, the Indonesian ministers would say to me: what are you doing about the sugar? That means, what about those things that you have done to make it sweeter for people to make this journey?"
Abuse claims to be investigated
Mark Dodd and Paige Taylor
The UN-backed International Organisation for Migration is seeking a site inspection of facilities at Indonesia's Tanjung Pinang immigration detention centre following claims of overcrowding and abuse of detainees by guards.
IOM's chief of mission in Jakarta, Denis Nihill, was expected to raise the abuse allegations yesterday with senior Indonesian officials, IOM's Bangkok-based Asia-Pacific spokesman Chris Lom told The Australian.
The meeting included a request for a site inspection of facilities at Tanjung Pinang, final destination for 78 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers held for more than a week on board the Australian Customs vessel, Oceanic Viking.
"If this is happening we obviously need to investigate and bring it to the attention of Indonesian immigrasi (immigration)," Mr Lom said.
"But the source is one of the migrants and so all I can say at this point is we will investigate it.
"If there is this situation of overcrowding and abuse, we'll tell Jakarta you'll need to respond to it by providing better accommodation, more training for staff and sacking anybody who is abusing the migrants.
"But at this point, it is impossible to confirm one way or the other what is actually happening there."
The claims of abuse include allegations of beatings by Indonesian guards and overcrowding, with asylum-seekers allegedly crammed 20 to a room with mattresses on the floor and no air-conditioning.
Last night the Oceanic Viking was anchored off Tanjung Pinang, the capital of Bintan island, 40km south of Singapore, waiting for official permission to dock. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said yesterday he was confident talks with Indonesian officials would clear the way for the asylum-seekers to be landed.
The issue of people-smuggling yesterday dominated question time in federal parliament.
Kevin Rudd said asylum-seekers had been recognised as a regional problem by the 16 governments attending last week's East Asia summit in Thailand.
"It is always driven by what is happening in our region and the wider world, as it confronts other countries as well," Mr Rudd said, adding that 15,000 asylum-seekers arrived by boat in Australian waters during John Howard's term in office.
But his comments appear at odds with latest figures from the refugee agency UNHCR, which appear to indicate Australia is a destination of choice for an increasing number of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers.
Mr Smith welcomed Jakarta's promise to investigate claims of detainee abuse at Tanjung Pinang. "If any serious allegations are made they need to be investigated by appropriate authorities," he said.
His concerns were backed by global human rights watchdog Amnesty International, which yesterday called on the Rudd government and Indonesia to uphold "international human rights standards" in its treatment of asylum-seekers.
ACTU president Sharan Burrow also stepped into the debate, saying the government should seek guarantees from Jakarta that it will not tolerate any ill-treatment of asylum-seekers.
Meanwhile senior Indonesian officials will arrive on Christmas Island tomorrow to inspect detention facilities as part of the Rudd government's contentious Indonesian solution.
The group, including a brigadier, will tour the $396 million immigration detention centre, which now holds 902 men, and inspect facilities including community detention, where 50 adults and children live in duplexes and can move freely around the island.
Additional reporting: Simon Kearney
Police probe detention centre 'beatings'
ABC Online News
Indonesian police are investigating allegations of abuse at an Australian-funded detention centre at Tanjung Pinang on the island of Bintan.
The 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers on board the Australian Customs ship, the Oceanic Viking, are expected to be brought to the centre today.
Pictures obtained by the ABC show injuries sustained by Afghan detainees at the detention centre.
They were allegedly caused by beatings received from the centre's guards and immigration authorities.
"Sometimes the immigration people hits some part of us ... hit during the night," one asylum seeker said.
Some of the mostly Afghan Hazaras locked up in the detention centre have been there for between two and six months.
But local and national immigration chiefs have denied the claims of beatings, saying the injuries were caused by self-harm and were designed to attract attention to the men's claims for asylum.
The director-general of Immigration in Jakarta, Basyir Barmawi, says he doubts the Afghans were beaten by staff because the detention centre is understaffed, but if there is proof action will be taken.
But AM has seen the proof which is currently before Indonesian police.
Just two weeks ago after some of the Afghans spent about $12,000 bribing their way out of the detention centre, a police investigation was launched and a group of the Afghan detainees were caught on video at the police station showing their cuts, bruises and black eyes.
The Chief Detective of Tanjung Pinang Police, Captain Edy Kuncoro says investigations are underway.
"We are investigating six altogether. Some are guards and some are from immigration. They were in charge that night," he said.
"So far their status is just as witnesses - they've refused to confess but we'll see how it goes. If they are guilty they could be sentenced to seven years' prison."
Authorities may use force
After meetings last night, Indonesian officials from Indonesia's navy, police and immigration departments were tight-lipped about the precise arrangements for today's expected docking by the Oceanic Viking.
The asylum-seekers on board the ship have been refusing food since Saturday and may not agree to leave the Oceanic Viking voluntarily.
But Rabusallam, the Police Chief at Kijang Port where the Oceanic Viking is expected to dock, says force may have to be used.
"We'll try and comply with them because they're exhausted both mentally and physically, but if they refuse to get down, it will depend on the next orders from my superior officer about the next step," he said.
"Yes, [force is an option] as long as we don't violate their human rights."
Military Against Australia's Push for Joint Naval Patrols
The Jakarta Globe
The government is likely to reject an Australian push for its navy to be allowed to patrol Indonesian waters, in what could be a blow to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's attempts to stem the flow of refugees through Indonesia.
According to a military spokesman, Air Vice Marshall Sagom Tamboen, the offer, which would see joint patrols of Indonesian and Australian naval forces in each other's territorial waters, was made during talks on the establishment of a new memorandum of understanding regarding the implementation of the Lombok Treaty, a security agreement signed in 2006.
The agreement covers defense cooperation, law enforcement, counter terrorism, intelligence, maritime security and the prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Speaking to the Jakarta Globe on Thursday, Sagom said the joint patrol could be used as a way for the Australian government to prevent boats carrying asylum-seekers from entering its territorial waters.
He said the offer -- which included Australia paying for the Indonesian Navy's expenses, including fuel costs during patrols -- was not likely to pass because the Armed Forces only recognized a "coordinated patrol" scheme whereby naval vessels patrolled their own waters but coordinated with officers from other participating countries.
Under the coordinated patrol scheme, he said, Indonesia had signed cooperation agreements with neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore.
"We never conduct joint patrols," he said.
Sagom acknowledged that the military could understand Australia's potrying to prevent illegal migrants in Indonesian waters from entering Australia.
"But in principle, we will keep refusing such a proposal because it does not fit with the scheme of our naval patrols," he said.
Besides, Sagom said, Indonesia would get complaints and requests for similar agreements from other neighbors if it accepted the Australian proposal.
"So we commit that there will be no cooperation that could harm our country's interests in the end," he said.
The Australian Embassy said it was not ready to comment on the issue on Thursday night.
The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper on Thursday published comments from an unnamed "official" source as saying that Rudd's attempts to forge a deal with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono over the people smuggling issue had "strained relationships nurtured between Indonesian and Australian police for more than 20 years."
Teuku Faizasyah, a spokesman from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said both countries had agreed to cooperate on defense issues during talks last year to implement the Lombok Treaty.
"For us, anything agreed to during the talks related to the cooperation must not harm our country's interests," he said.
Aussies Treading Water on Refugees
The Jakarta Globe
Amilitary spokesman said on Thursday that the Australian government should recall its customs service vessel, the MV Oceanic Viking, which has been moored about 14 kilometers off a Riau Islands port for 11 days with 78 Sri Lankan refugees onboard.
"I wonder why the vessel, which intercepted the asylum seekers near Christmas Island, carried them into Indonesian waters?" Air Vice Marshall Sagom Tamboen said. "[The refugees] only want asylum in Australia. It's as if [the Australian government] are trying to shift responsibility to other countries."
Indonesian authorities have given security clearance to the vessel as a sign of cooperation with the Australian government, but the clearance officially expires on Friday.
"The asylum seekers do not want to be in Indonesia, they keep stressing that they want to be in Australia," Tamboen said.
The Indonesian government wants to perform identity checks on all the Sri Lankan asylum seekers before they disembark. However, the refugees have so far refused to cooperate with Indonesian authorities.
"The problem is that the security clearance will expire, which means they must leave Indonesia," Tamboen said.
"The Australian government should immediately order the ship to return to their country. If they force the passengers to get out of the vessel, it could be labeled as torture."
Asked about the possibility that Indonesian authorities -- including members of the military -- were involved in smuggling people to Australia, Tamboen said the government was committed to preventing its personnel from engaging in such activity.
"If any officers were involved and were caught then they will face punishment," he said.
The Australian government has applied for an extension of security clearance for the Oceanic Viking, and the military -- along with the Transportation Ministry and the Defense Ministry -- are still considering whether to approve or deny it.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry has already filed a diplomatic protest with the Australian government dealing with the Oceanic Viking carrying asylum seekers to Indonesia, with the message that Indonesia would not be willing to accept similar cases in the future.
Foreign Affairs Ministry Spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said that if the Sri Lankans kept rejecting inspections, the vessel and the asylum seekers would be expelled from Indonesian waters by Friday.
"Without such a procedure, we cannot accept the refugees here. We must be sure that they are healthy enough to live in Indonesia," he said.
Indonesia Says It Won't Bend on Sri Lanka Refugees
The Jakarta Globe
The government said on Friday that it would not be forced into taking in a group of Sri Lankan asylum seekers stranded here en route to Australia.
The statement came as the government extended the clearance for an Australian customs vessel moored in the Riau Islands by an additional week to provide more time to resolve the deadlock over 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers it had on board.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah rejected the concept of an "Indonesian solution," as floated by the Australian media, in which Indonesia would be asked to take in the Sri Lankan migrants on behalf of Australia.
"If there is an Indonesian solution, why isn't there an Australian solution?" he asked, adding that Indonesia had never entertained the idea of becoming a processing center for asylum seekers to other countries.
"We are not comfortable with that concept."
However, Faizasyah said that Indonesia remained committed to providing humanitarian assistance to the asylum seekers, although it could not force them to disembark from the vessel. "We will not break our promise [of humanitarian assistance]," he said.
The 78 Sri Lankans -- reportedly 68 men, five women and five children -- aboard the Australian government's armed patrol ship, the MV Oceanic Viking, which has been in Riau for almost two weeks, have refused to be transferred to an Australian-funded detention center on Bintan Island.
This month, Indonesian authorities intercepted another boat carrying 255 Sri Lankan asylum seekers in the Sunda Strait bound for Australia. That boat is now anchored in Banten and the migrants have also refused to disembark.
Faizasyah said the government was prepared to cooperate with Australia over the latest issue and extend the permit for the Oceanic Viking to stay in Indonesian waters for one more week after its original permit expired on Friday.
However, he said the framework for cooperation in dealing with a case such as this did not exist, although an Australian delegation was expected in Jakarta next week to hammer out an agreement.
Meanwhile, Haris Azhar, deputy coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), called on Canberra to treat the Sri Lankans fairly.
"The Australian government should see the underlying reasons for them leaving their country and heading to Australia. The Sri Lankans just don't feel safe in their country," he said. "Please use a more humanistic approach to helping refugees."
Haris also urged Australia to reveal the reasoning behind its persistent rejection of the Sri Lankan asylum seekers. "Refugees are an international concern -- the Australian government must explain why it won't accept the Sri Lankans," he said.
Separately, a military spokesman, Air Vice Marshall Sagom Tamboen, reiterated that the Oceanic Viking would have to leave Indonesian waters by Friday at the latest.
Jakarta fearful of asylum-seeker fallout
Stephen Fitzpatrick, Tanjung Pinang
Kevin Rudd might have been given another week to solve his Oceanic Viking public relations disaster, but that doesn't mean Indonesia is very happy about it.
As the Australian Customs vessel with its cargo of 78 Sri Lankans sits in waters off Tanjung Pinang and the monsoon makes its first early forays across the Riau archipelago, there is extreme disquiet in Jakarta.
The Foreign Ministry's director for diplomatic security, Sujatmiko, held nothing back when he declared Indonesia had been "more than patient" on the standoff and warned of the danger that "an issue this small could damage the relationship between the two countries".
Sujatmiko spent years living and studying international relations in Australia, and received a PhD at the Australian National University. The softly spoken and cultured diplomat knows exactly the impact of his words on an Australian audience. He and his colleagues feel they have done everything possible to honour the commitment made by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to Rudd in Jakarta almost three weeks ago to take the Tamil asylum-seekers, after their boat was rescued in Indonesia's zone of responsibility.
"But once the commitment is discharged, you no longer have a commitment," he says. "We have to find a balance between helping out a neighbour, and meeting Indonesia's own needs."
And those needs are, largely, domestic political ones.
Under the country's decentralisation policy, which gives local leaders such as Riau Islands provincial governor Ismeth Abdullah genuine power to stand up to the central government, the support of the regions is crucial to Yudhoyono's ability to govern.
And while Jakarta understands the need for damage control around the issue of the Oceanic Viking, it also acknowledges the importance, in the burgeoning democracy Indonesia is becoming, of a free press.
When Australian officials asked Sujatmiko to stop journalists from taking small charter boats out to the ship, anchored 10 nautical miles off Tanjung Pinang, he shrugged and said he couldn't.
"We have a democratic view of how the press works," he later said he had told them. "What's more, this is my country, not yours."
The Australians dealing with the standoff believe that if the Sri Lankans had not been able to communicate with the world - through throwing notes overboard, and through using phone numbers smuggled on board since their arrival at Tanjung Pinang, as well as ones they had hidden with them - the matter might have been resolved differently.
Department of Foreign Affairs Emphasises that Indonesia is not a Transit Place for Refugees or Illegal Immigrants
"Deplu Tegaskan Indonesia Bukan Tempat Transit Pengungsi atau Imigran Gelap"
Jakarta - The Department of Foreign Affairs (Deplu) has emphasised/stated that the Indonesian Government does not want an inch of its territory to become a transit place for refugees or illegal immigrants travelling to other countries. This assertion was made by Deplu spokeswoman, Teuku Faizasyah in relation to the arrival at Bintan Island in the Riau Islands Province of an Australian ship carrying illegal immigrants from Sri Lanka.
"Indonesia has not considered [the possibility], and has never wanted its territory to become a processing place for the transferring of potential refugees to a third country. Indonesia is not a transit place for refugees or illegal immigrants," said Faizasyah in Jakarta on Monday (2/11).
According to the Deplu spokesman, the case of the Sri Lankan refugees in the Riau Islands is not a bilateral issue, involving a country of origin, a transit country, and a destination country. If Indonesia receives a formal request from the Sri Lankan government, it will be obliged to facilitate the process of finishing this issue as stipulated in the Vienna Convention. However, the Indonesian government is yet to receive a formal request from the Sri Lankan government to handle the refugees on Bintan Island.
"It is thought that the process of verifying the nationality of the migrants in the Riau Islands waters will not be very different from [the process used for] the Sri Lankan refugees in Aceh, or in other areas. The verification of the 78 migrants will be undertaken by the Sri Lankan Embassy in Jakarta, even though a formal request from that country has yet to be received," he said.
Further, in relation to the case of the Sri Lankan migrants [in Riau], a clear structure for cooperation between Indonesia and Australia does not yet exist. The commitment of both countries in the Lombok Treaty does refer to people smuggling and trafficking in persons, however it is limited to the sharing of intelligence information and the building of immigration capacity.
In relation to the concept of an 'Indonesian Solution' which has been thrown around by the Australian mass media, Faizasyah explained that this issue has made Indonesia uncomfortable. The decision to allow the ship carrying the Sri Lankan refugees to enter Indonesian territorial waters was made mainly in consideration of the need to provide humanitarian assistance. "The Indonesian Government cannot force the refugees to get off the boat," Teuku Faizasyah stated firmly.
Police Prepared if/when Migrants Enter Bintan
"Polisi Siaga bila Imigran Masuki Bintan"
Batam - In relation to the surveillance of migrants on the Australian ship, Oceanic Viking, [which is currently] in Bintan waters, Chief of Bintan Police, Johanes Widodo stated on Sunday (1/11) that surveillance of the ship is being undertaken by the Indonesian Navy.
The police force will also assist by overseeing or maintaining the safety of the situation if they are asked to, or if the migrants in question actually enter Bintan territory.
As has been reported, the Director of Diplomatic Security of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Sujatmiko, stated that the Oceanic Viking's (OV) security clearance (SC) to remain in Indonesian waters will expire on Friday, 6 November 2009. If the Indonesian Government does not extend the security clearance, the OV ship will have to go or leave Indonesian territorial waters.
According to Sujatmika the Australian Government has requested permission to change the crew of the OV ship during this period. OV's crew will enter Tanjung Pinang before returning to Australia. OV crew members may also collect logistical needs from Tanjung Pinang.
Sujatmika clarified that the Indonesian Government has already tried to assist the OV ship by allowing it to enter Indonesian waters, in accordance with a request from Australia. Indonesia has also offered medical assistance to the illegal migrants onboard. "They're not refugees, they're illegal immigrants," he said.
"However, when they were about to be examined, they refused. When asked for valid immigration documents such as those required to enter a country, they also refused. When asked if they wanted to come to Indonesia, they refused [this as well]. They want to go to Australia," he said.
Indonesia corruption drive breeds fear
BBC News | Asia-Pacific
A lawmaker here in Jakarta confided the other day that he no longer admitted what he did for a living.
"If I'm in a taxi," he said, "and the driver asks me what my job is, I tell him I'm a writer."
It was just easier that way, he explained.
"Public opinion now is very bad. If I tell him I'm an MP, I worry he'll get angry or start accusing me of something."
He is probably right to be cautious.
Indonesia's increasing democracy has meant politicians have had to get used to a new level of media scrutiny - from satirical TV shows to live radio phone-ins.
But nothing has battered their image in recent months quite like the country's Corruption Eradication Commission, the KPK.
Rumours of corruption have hung over parliament for years, but the KPK has done something unheard of before: it has moved in and investigated them.
In the past few months, it has investigated six MPs, and has just cracked open a corruption scandal which could potentially suck in all 53 former members of the parliament's financial commission, including two cabinet ministers.
That has sent a few shockwaves rattling beneath the green turtle shell-like roof of the parliament building.
"The first reaction was hurt and embarrassment," said MP Eva Kusuma. "It was a very impulsive reaction; people felt the commission had gone beyond what was allowed by law."
But it had not. The KPK has widespread rights to tap phones, block accounts, issue travel bans, order suspension from office and take over investigations from the police and prosecutor-general.
Culture of fear
Rights, in fact, that were authorised by parliament itself. The irony is that few MPs thought they themselves would be the target.
"It's very funny," said Hajriyanto Thohari, a senior member of Golkar, parliament's main faction. "The KPK was created by parliament; its bill was passed by parliament; its members were elected by parliament. And now they're scared of it!"
He estimates around 20% of MPs are guilty of corruption or abusing power. Others put the figure even higher.
But some parliamentarians say the culture of fear is hampering even the innocent; that lawmakers are scared of simply making mistakes, and are less inclined to seek re-election because of the change in climate.
"Most people are very alert now when using the phone," one MP told me. "We have to be careful; we're frightened to discuss even legitimate issues about money. Most people would rather talk about those things in person than on the phone - in case it's misconstrued by the KPK."
Some academics dismiss this as laughable - an attempt simply to hide a guilty conscience - and many MPs say in fact they welcome the attempt to clean up parliament.
But a new culture of fear seems to be rippling through other institutions too.
Agus Rahardjo, head of procurement at the National Logistics Agency, said people were now more wary of taking on responsibility for projects and less willing to manage tenders because of the new levels of scrutiny.
He said many employees were finding themselves caught between the KPK and superiors or parliamentarians, who were still pressuring them to break the rules.
Corruption is a huge issue for Indonesia. The country is ranked 143 in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index - that compares to 72 for India and China, 68 for Colombia and 150 for Zimbabwe.
As one long-term resident of Jakarta quipped, corruption does not interfere with the system here; it is the system here.
So what actually happens to that system when you start blowing holes in it?
According to Indonesia's Association of Entrepreneurs, it means it grinds to a halt.
A major crackdown on bribery among customs officials here, it said, had led to severe delays in getting goods in and out of the country. One entrepreneur said shipments that used to take three days to go through now took several weeks.
The Indonesian Chamber of Commerce recently met with the KPK to talk about the problem - a problem KPK deputy commissioner Haryono Umar put down to low salaries.
For many low-paid state employees, he said, bribery was seen as part of their regular income, and without it there was little incentive to work.
But customs officials here were awarded pay rises shortly before the crackdown - and that did not have nearly as much effect as the KPK operation.
Many analysts say that there is little point going after a few corruptors without reforming the rest of the system - but that means more transparent procurement processes and computerised systems, as well as better salaries.
Without a total overhaul, they say, high-profile arrests can only go so far.
Even in parliament, one MP said, "bribery is still rampant. The KPK has just scared the mediocre corruptors and made the slick ones slicker."
But this issue is not going away. The lid has been eased off parliament and there are now calls for the KPK to take on other, tougher bastions of perceived corruption - like the government and the Supreme Court.
Some politicians - the speaker of parliament among them - have even begun calling for the death penalty to be applied in serious cases of corruption.
That may be politically savvy posturing, given the mood of the electorate, but it also shows how much pressure is building over this issue - and how big an issue it is.
Indonesia fights corruption with people power
BBC News | Asia-Pacific
The BBC's Karishma Vaswani in Jakarta takes a look at the scandal that is being called Indonesia's Watergate.
In Indonesia public protests, secret recordings and an alleged plot among senior law enforcement officials to undermine the anti-corruption agency have transfixed the country.
Ask any Indonesian about corruption and chances are they will tell you that at some point in their lives they have had to deal with it.
Whether it is paying a bribe to get out of a traffic fine or slipping some extra cash to an official at the immigration office, corruption, many here say, is unfortunately a way of life - it is in the culture.
It is a depressing fact, but a reality that Indonesians have become used to.
But now something has changed.
Fed up and frustrated with the levels of graft within the institutions that are charged with the responsibility of protecting them, Indonesians have taken to the streets in what is being called one of the grandest showings of people power since the days of the 1998 Reformasi movement.
At the time thousands of Indonesians came out on the streets of Jakarta to demonstrate against then-President Suharto, demanding that he resign from his post after three decades of authoritarian and often unjust rule.
This time the demonstrations were not so dramatic - but they were effective all the same.
Hundreds of Indonesians came out on the streets of Jakarta to protest against what they saw as an outrageous injustice.
Singing songs against the Indonesian police, and in support of the anti-corruption commission, they gathered at the city's main roundabout, chanting for the dismissal of the police chief and officials in the attorney general's office.
The Indonesian public believes that the anti-corruption commission has become a target of the police and the attorney general's office because of its reputation of putting corrupt officials behind bars - even those in high places.
Indonesia is often ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world by international watchdogs.
The anti-corruption body has received popular support because so many Indonesians are often victims of corruption in their own land - and there is not much they can do to fight back.
When Indonesians realised that one of the few government bodies they actually believed in - the anti corruption commission - was becoming a target of the police and judiciary, they decided they were not having any of it.
Many here respect the KPK, as the powerful corruption watchdog is known, and have little faith in the police or the judiciary - which Indonesians have dubbed the "court mafia".
The sentiments of 20-year-old Budi sum up how many Indonesians feel about these institutions.
"I think the public aren't satisfied with the work of the police," he said.
"Just look at how they behave on the streets. Maybe it's just individual police doing bad things - but if a lot of them do it, then the entire institution is also to blame."
Ika, 29, agrees.
"The image of the police and the prosecutors isn't good amongst Indonesians," she said.
"Many people doubt their honesty. They're involved in many cases, from the streets to those involving institutions and those we read in the newspapers."
This lack of trust in the very forces that are supposed to protect the Indonesian public was reinforced after listening to controversial wire-tapped recordings this week.
Indonesians across the archipelago sat transfixed for hours as the tapes were broadcast on national television.
Discussions on the tapes, allegedly between members of the police, the attorney general's office and a businessman, revealed the speakers were involved in plans to significantly weaken the KPK by framing the powerful agency.
The public demanded that heads must roll - and they did.
Two of the country's most powerful and influential men resigned from their jobs - Abdul Hakim Ritonga, the deputy attorney general and Susno Duadji, the head of the national investigations unit.
Their names were some of those mentioned in the wire-tapped conversations.
In an attempt to calm the public uproar, recently re-elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono vowed to his citizens that clamping down on corruption would be a cornerstone of his 100-day plan.
"I say to the people of Indonesia, who feel like they have become victims of this mafia in the past, or perhaps even now are a victim, to report this," he said in an address to the nation on Thursday night.
"Let's make our system clean."
The Indonesian president encouraged his citizens to work with him in the fight against corruption.
He has introduced a novel method of rooting out rotten officials: there is now a post office box address where Indonesians can send their letters of complaints about any corrupt officials they have come into contact with, and he has promised to respond.
But political analysts say the president will have to do a lot more than just make promises.
"The president is going to handle this very carefully," said Sunny Tanuwidjaja from the Centre of Strategic and International Studies.
"There will be a big push for reform, but I think its going to be slow. The public wants change and this is an opportunity to make the police institutions more open and transparent.
"It's a big incentive for Yudhoyono to push for true reform in the police. But whether he will do that really depends on his judgement."
A lot is riding on how the Indonesian president handles this case. This is the first crisis of his second term in office - a term that many thought would go smoothly because of his past track record.
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was re-elected in July in part because of his vows to clean up corruption in the country.
He now has to show the public who voted him in that he will stay true to his word.
World hits Rudd over boat people stand-off
The Federal Government's tough stance on asylum seekers is attracting international media attention - most of it critical and likely to damage Australia's standing.
As the impasse involving 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers on an Australian Customs ship enters its fourth week, The New York Times heaped opprobrium on Australia's policy of processing refugees at the Christmas Island detention centre. The newspaper compared the centre to Guantanamo Bay.
''Even as boats arrive every few days, advocates for refugees and even the Government's own human rights commission are urging the Government to close the place down and sort the asylum seekers on the mainland,'' The New York Times reported.
It cited a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission which said the centre ''looks and feels like a prison'' and described security as ''excessive and inappropriate''.
"The centre ... now nearly full with refugees from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, has come to symbolise what many call one of Australia's defining fears: the arrival of boat people from Asia,'' reporter Norimitsu Onishi said.
Reports by the BBC have also been critical of Australia's reluctance to share responsibility for the tide of asylum seekers.
''Australia receives just a fraction each year of what the UN estimates to be more than 15 million refugees globally, but the issue has split the country,'' the BBC reported recently.
And attempts by the Rudd Government to persuade Indonesia to process the 78 asylum seekers on the Oceanic Viking have rankled media organisations in Malaysia and Singapore, just a week before the APEC summit.
Malaysia's New Straits Times said the Rudd Government's response was motivated by self-preservation and selfish gain.
''Border protection, border security, is ingrained in the Australian psyche. From the 'reds under the bed' parodied paranoia of Robert Menzies' 1950s, successive governments of both mainstream persuasions have pandered to the politics of fear of invasion,'' the New Straits Times reported.
But the Government's handling of the crisis has won editorial support in Canada, which detained 76 Sri Lankan refugees who arrived by boat last month.
''Canada should emulate Australia in being vigilant and trying to intercept such ships before they get close to shore,'' said Canada's Globe and Mail.
Unlike Australia, however, Canadian authorities processed most of the Tamil refugees within days of arrival.
Under Canadian law, an asylum seeker must be given a detention hearing within 48 hours of being taken into custody.
UN puts Rudd policies in spotlight
Sydney Morning Herald
Kevin Rudd's immigration policies are set to come under scrutiny from the United Nations and a leading international human rights group in a move that could affect the Government's quest to improve Australia's global standing.
The international organisation Human Rights Watch, based in New York, has begun making inquiries about the Government's so-called Indonesia solution amid concerns about the methods used to intercept boats and process asylum seekers offshore. The inquiry would mark the organisation's first scrutiny of Australian policy since the 2007 election and a turnaround from the international praise the Government has received for its efforts on disarmament and climate change and its apology to the stolen generations.
Immigration policies are also due to be assessed by the UN special rapporteur on the right to health, Anand Grover, who has taken up an invitation to visit Australia and is set to inspect detention centres in Villawood and Brisbane next month. It is understood Mr Grover, who will also examine health issues in indigenous communities and prisons, is not planning to visit Christmas Island because of time constraints.
Several Australian human rights lawyers and groups, including the local branch of Amnesty International, are concerned about moves to have asylum seekers processed in Indonesia, which is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees.
The Government will be keen to avoid international criticism as it pursues a $13 million bid to win a seat on the UN Security Council. It has adopted a range of initiatives to improve Australia's diplomatic reputation and clout, including increased foreign aid, signing a range of international treaties, deeper engagement in the Pacific and the establishment of a nuclear disarmament commission.
The visit by Mr Grover, an Indian lawyer, follows a standing invitation issued last year by the Government to all UN special rapporteurs. He will report to the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.
An Australian human rights group, the Human Rights Law Resource Centre, has called on Mr Grover to examine poor health in indigenous communities, the effect of mandatory detention of asylum seekers and mental health care in prisons.
''The rapporteur's visit does not mean he thinks there are shocking human rights violations,'' said the director of the centre, Philip Lynch.
"This is a unique opportunity for federal and state governments to have a constructive dialogue with an eminent human rights expert about the state of the right to health in Australia, particularly for vulnerable groups such as indigenous people and asylum seekers.''
Human Rights Watch conducted several inquiries into the policies of the Howard government and issued a series of scathing criticisms of its detention of asylum seekers and temporary protection visas. Other criticism focused on the Howard government's anti-terrorism laws and refusal to sign a treaty against torture, its reluctance to engage with the UN on human rights and its treatment of same-sex couples.
Human rights groups have called on Australia to abide by the refugee convention and ensure its agreement with Indonesia does not violate international law.
Human Rights Watch: For Refugees, Australia Should Rethink the 'Indonesia Solution'
The Jakarta Globe
Elaine Pearson is the deputy director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch
In January, Australians saw shocking photos of young, emaciated men washing up on the shores of Sumatra. Australian television showed these Rohingyas, members of a Muslim ethnic minority systematically mistreated by Burma's military regime, describing how Thai authorities beat them and pushed them back out to sea. Video footage captured the Thai navy appearing to tow the men out to sea in their rickety boats. The world was horrified.
Fast forward to last week, when boat people were once again on our TV screens. On Oct. 18, an Australian naval vessel rescued a boatload of Sri Lankans in international waters (though Indonesia's search and rescue area) and transferred them to a customs boat, which is now trying to set them ashore in Indonesia.
What happened to the Rohingya earlier this year should make Australians think twice about the "Indonesian Solution." Australia's policy toward asylum seekers should be based on humane treatment and protecting the vulnerable, not politically expedient efforts to airbrush asylum seekers from television screens by herding them into remote camps.
In January and February almost 400 Rohingya and Bangladeshis landed on Indonesia's shores. Despite the decades of discrimination and abuse faced by Rohingya in Burma, the Indonesian government initially claimed they were all "economic migrants" and threatened to deport them. It even blocked access to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
It took until April for a team that included the UN refugee agency to begin to process their claims. In May, the team reported to journalists that most were Rohingyas who had legitimate asylum claims. Up until now, they have been detained in squalid makeshift camps. In one, where reports emerged of guards beating camp residents, many have escaped and disappeared. The others remain in limbo, but no longer in the media spotlight. Ten months later they are largely forgotten.
When the Rohingya stories hit the headlines earlier this year, regional leaders held emergency discussions on the fringes of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit. At the time, Human Rights Watch called for a regional solution to address refugees. Lip service was paid to this goal, but instead the Rohingya were relegated to the Bali Process, a regional scheme driven by Australia and Indonesia with the main goal of preventing people smuggling, human trafficking and other transnational crime.
On Feb. 20 Australia's foreign minister, Stephen Smith, in a joint news conference with the Indonesian foreign minister in Sydney, welcomed "very much that the Bali Process will deal with the Rohingyas issue." But by treating the Rohingya as smuggled migrants instead of asylum seekers, Australia and others fail to address the human rights abuses from which the Rohingya flee in Burma and the need for refugee protection in host countries.
The same issues are arising with the Sri Lankan boat people.
Sri Lanka has just come out of a brutal armed conflict, where war crimes were committed by both government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Ethnic Tamils bore the brunt of the abuses from both sides. Since the war ended in May, a quarter of a million Tamil civilians have been unlawfully locked up in camps.
Some media reports allege the 78 Sri Lankans were recognized as refugees years ago in Indonesia and were awaiting resettlement. If that's true, this is further evidence that Australia and Indonesia should treat the asylum seekers as people with rights, and not merely as the smugglers' cargo.
If Australia is to exert pressure on Jakarta, it should do so with the aim of persuading Indonesia to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention - something Indonesia has pledged to do since 2004.
In the meantime, Indonesia offers no long-term solution for refugees. While Australia does resettle a good proportion of refugees from Indonesia, the process is slow and the numbers are very small - only 448 have been admitted since 2001.
Australia did the right thing in rescuing the 78 Sri Lankans. The Rudd government should now do the next right thing in processing their asylum claims, rather than shunting them around as a symbol to show the Australian public that this government can be as tough as its predecessor.
Refugees Are Not Bargaining Chips
New York Times / International Herald Tribune
Washington -- A virus is sweeping Asia. The symptoms are heightened xenophobia and amnesia about fundamental refugee rights. Australia and Indonesia succumbed first, in October, when they stopped boats carrying Sri Lankans. Neither country would allow the Sri Lankans to disembark even though they came from a country experiencing massive violence and displacement. Almost three months later, one of the boats, holding more than 250 Sri Lankans, remains moored in the West Javan port of Merak.
Cambodia was next to catch the fever. A small group of Uighur men, women and children fleeing the aftermath of the worst ethnic violence in decades in China sought asylum in Cambodia. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees issued "persons of concern" letters on their behalf and moved them into a facility it managed jointly with the Cambodian government. But Cambodia forcibly returned 20 Uighurs on Dec. 19, despite the protests of the U.N. agency, the diplomatic corps and human rights groups. They have not been heard from since.
Now Thailand has gone viral. On Monday, soldiers with truncheons and shields herded more than 4,000 Hmong asylum seekers onto buses back to Laos from the Huay Nam Khao camp in Petchabun Province, where they have lived since 2005. For four years, the Thai Army detained the Hmong in the closed camp, never allowing the U.N. refugee agency to interview them or assess their claims to refugee status. The Thai Army's own screening process, based on criteria never made public, found that hundreds of the Hmong had legitimate protection concerns, but Thailand never provided any additional protections. The Thai government maintained that the Hmong were "economic migrants" but refused any fair determination process to assess that claim.
When it came, the forced repatriation was conducted in the face of loud international condemnation, from the refugee agency, top levels of the U.S. State Department, and the president of the European Union. Tellingly, a group of 158 Hmong who not only had been recognized as refugees by the U.N. refugee agency but also had been offered resettlement by Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and the United States were also deported. They had been detained separately in abysmal conditions for three years at Nong Khai immigration detention center.
The willingness to flout international refugee law and to ignore the entreaties of refugees not to be sent back to their home countries has become the mark of chummy bilateral relations between Asian states. Thailand sends back Hmong refugees -- a group with a history of persecution at the hands of the Lao government dating back to the 1960s -- citing a secret bilateral agreement and the Lao government's assurances of their safe treatment. Cambodia forcibly repatriates Uighurs just as the Chinese vice president, Xi Jinping, arrives on a visit to Phnom Penh to announce a $1.2 billion aid package to Cambodia.
Governments in the region this month have lied outright to the U.N. refugee agency about their intentions to return "people of concern" to their home countries, blocked the agency from interviewing asylum seekers to assess their claims, and simply ignored the agency's protests. The marginalization of the U.N. agency goes hand in hand with rapid erosion of the bedrock principle of international refugee law -- called nonrefoulement, the prohibition on the forcible return of refugees to places where they would be likely to face persecution.
Like biological viruses, this latest strain of refugee mistreatment has its antecedents, in part, because Asia -- unlike Africa, the Americas and Europe -- has no legal regional framework for refugee protection. Few Asian governments have even signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, ratified by 147 countries, which sets the global standard for the treatment of refugees.
The African refugee convention has a provision that should be particularly instructive for Asian governments: "The grant of asylum to refugees is a peaceful and humanitarian act and shall not be regarded as an unfriendly act by any Member State."
The spate of refugee returns has the urgency of an impending epidemic that needs to be contained. But the focus of immediate concern now shifts to the home countries to which these unfortunate people have been returned. China and Laos need to give the United Nations and other relevant agencies immediate and continuous access to the returnees in an atmosphere of complete openness and accountability. At the dawn of a new decade, Asian governments should commit themselves not only to the nonrefoulement principle, but also to the idea that granting asylum is a humanitarian act that should be entirely divorced from political relations between states.
Bill Frelick is the refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch.
Rudd blamed for Asian 'virus'
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's deals to deter asylum seekers have triggered an Asia-wide virus of ''xenophobia and amnesia'' over refugee rights, a leading human rights group says.
Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, has written a scathing attack on recent moves across Asia to prevent the resettlement of refugees - and he says it all began with the agreement in October between the Prime Minister and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to prevent a boatload of Sri Lankan asylum seekers from entering Australian waters.
''The willingness to flout international refugee law and to ignore the entreaties of refugees not to be sent back to their home countries has become the mark of chummy bilateral relations between Asian states,'' Mr Frelick writes in the International Herald Tribune.
''A virus is sweeping Asia. The symptoms are heightened xenophobia and amnesia about fundamental refugee rights. Australia and Indonesia succumbed first, in October, when they stopped boats carrying Sri Lankans ... Granting asylum is a humanitarian act that should be entirely divorced from political relations between states.''
More than 200 ethnic Tamils remain on a wooden boat in the Indonesian port of Merak after their vessel was intercepted by the Indonesian navy on its way to Australia, following a request by phone from Mr Rudd to Dr Yudhoyono. Another group of Tamils in an Australian detention centre on Christmas Island has begun a protest and will today meet immigration officials after a three-day boycott of facilities.
Mr Frelick said the Merak deal was followed by violent and illegal forced repatriations by Cambodia of 20 Chinese Uighurs, who were deported two weeks ago and have not been heard from since, and then by Thailand, which last week deported 4000 Hmong asylum seekers to Laos. The lack of a regional deal on refugees - which Australia is seeking to rectify - had led to a particularly flagrant approach to refugees in Asia, he said.
Mr Frelick said Asia - unlike Africa, the Americas and Europe - had no legal regional framework for refugee protection and that governments in the region had lied to the UN refugee agency, blocked its efforts to interview asylum seekers and ignored its protests.
The Rudd Government ended the Howard government's policy of transferring asylum seekers to Pacific states but has continued to detain would-be migrants offshore at Christmas Island.
The Tamils protesting on Christmas Island claim they are facing excessive waiting times to be processed, with 78 being held for more than six months and several in detention for nearly a year. They have also expressed frustration that members of the Hazara ethnic minority from Afghanistan who arrived after some Tamils have already had their claims assessed.
Since Sunday, more than 400 Tamils have boycotted the library, internet and gym facilities at the centre and yesterday refused to use the centre's canteen.
''There is no good reason that it is taking so long for Tamil asylum applications to be processed,'' said Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition.
Indonesia wants asylum seeker calm
On the eve of the Indonesian President's visit to Australia, one of his senior advisers is calling on the Rudd Government not to wash its hands of the asylum seeker stand-off in the port of Merak.
More than 240 Sri Lankans have been refusing to disembark their vessel for four and a half months.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has personally asked Susillo Bambang Yudhoyono for Indonesia to intercept the boat.
But President Yudhoyono's spokesman Dino Jalal, concedes people smuggling is not as big a concern for the Indonesian Government, as it is for Australia.
President Yudhoyono will visit Sydney and Canberra in mid-March, and will address both houses of parliament.
Burke slips on asylum seeker advice
Sydney Morning Herald
Tony Burke has let slip the government has long held advice showing the practice of turning back asylum seekers does not work, undermining his own party's determination to do so with the Oceanic Viking refugees.
Mr Burke, the Minister for Sustainable Population, referred to the advice when trying to discredit the opposition's plan to turn back boats at a debate hosted by the National Press Club. According to Mr Burke, intelligence received by Labor upon taking office in 2007 said: ''If you try to turn a boat back, no country will take them.''
The advice was supplied by the Australian Defence Force's Northern Command and would have been known to the Howard government, he said.
Pressed on why the former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, would then have ignored such advice to send 78 asylum seekers back to Indonesia last year, Mr Burke said he was not privy to the rationale. ''I was not in the room. I was not part of that decision-making process,'' he said.
Such advice is significant because had the Rudd government followed it, an embarrassing diplomatic stalemate could have been avoided.
In October Mr Rudd sparked a month-long stand-off aboard the Australian customs vessel, Oceanic Viking, when 78 asylum seekers refused to leave disembark in Indonesia. The Australian government then promised all refugees rapid resettlement, including four people deemed a national security risk by ASIO.
The Howard government's first immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, said yesterday he was unaware of any advice saying boats could not be turned around. ''It [the practice] stopped, not because of operational reasons, but because essentially, we weren't getting boats,'' he said.
Mr Ruddock was on the national security committee of cabinet from 2001 until the Howard government's defeat in 2007. ''I don't recall any such advice that it would never be possible,'' he said. ''To assert that such advice was offered sits uncomfortably with the fact that it happened on seven occasions.''
The opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, questioned the existence of the advice and demanded the government share it. ''If this advice indeed exists, then it should be made available to the opposition at least on a confidential basis,'' he said after the debate.
It was clear there was no such advice when asylum seekers intercepted off Ashmore Reef set fire to their boat, believing they would be returned to Indonesia, he said. ''What's even more concerning, is that in the middle of a campaign debate, Mr Burke would treat information like this so carelessly in a public domain.''
Yesterday's debate in Canberra was ostensibly about population policy. Mr Burke argued the population debate centred around the sustainable distribution of people across the country, not immigration.
Two-thirds of population growth is driven by overseas migration. The other third is by natural increase.
By contrast, Mr Morrison tried to square the debate solely on immigration, in particular, asylum seekers, who account for 13,750 places in the migration program.
The sensitivity of the debate was drawn into sharp focus by the quick eviction of protesters who interrupted Mr Morrison's speech.