Minister calls incursions ‘extremely regrettable’ after Indonesia demands suspension of operations against asylum seeker boats
Australia has apologised for its border patrol boats entering Indonesian waters without permission, a breach of sovereignty that prompted Indonesia to demand Australia suspend operations against asylum seeker boats.
The border protection minister, Scott Morrison, said a formal apology on behalf of the Australian government would be made by its embassy in Jakarta on Friday. He called the incursions “a very serious matter” and “extremely regrettable”, and promised that efforts would be made so they did not happen again. Australia’s navy chief had already apologised to his Indonesian counterpart, he said.
Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, who as commander of Operation Sovereign Borders oversees Australia’s efforts to stop boats carrying asylum seekers heading from Indonesian ports, said he had become aware on Wednesday that Australian vessels had travelled through Indonesian water “on several occasions”. He would not say how many vessels were involved, or where and when the breaches took place.
Indonesia warned that the revelation that Australian navy vessels entered its waters several times would worsen relations between the two countries. It also vowed to step up border patrols to monitor incursions and called on Australia to suspend operations until assurances were provided that encroachment on its territory would not happen again.
In a strongly worded statement from the co-ordinating ministry for political, legal and security affairs on Friday night, the Indonesian government deplored the violation of its sovereignty by Australian vessels.
The statement, which was released in Bahasa Indonesia, said the Indonesian government had sought formal clarification from Australia about the exact nature of the violations, and called for formal assurances they would not happen again.
Agus Barnas, a spokesman for Djoko Suyanto, Indonesia’s co-ordinating minister for politics, security and law, said: “If they entered Indonesian waters like that, this will only worsen the situation and the relationship between Indonesia and Australia.
“Australia’s attitude in this, if they really breached the Indonesian sovereign territory, is regrettable. As a good neighbour, Australia should respect Indonesia’s sovereignty,” he said.
Relations between the neighbouring states have been strained since Guardian Australia and the ABC revealed last year that Australian spy agencies targeted the mobile phones of the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and his inner circle. Yudhoyono subsequently froze military, police and intelligence co-operation with Australia.
It is understood Djoko is to meet Yudhoyono later on Friday.
“If what the Australian navy did is true, that would only worsen the Indonesia-Australia relationship,” Agus said. “It could hamper the normalisation of the Indonesia-Australia relationship.”
Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, unsuccessfully tried to call her Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa, on Thursday night to “offer an unqualified apology on behalf of the Australian government … and to provide an assurance that such a breach would not occur again”.
The chief of the navy, Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs, has also called his Indonesian counterpart, Admiral Marsetio, to explain and express regret – efforts all clearly aimed at mollifying anger in Indonesia, which is particularly sensitive to violation of its maritime boundaries.
The incursions were caused by “positional errors in the movements of our vessels”, Campbell said, and occurred several times on more than one day. He said the commanders of the vessels always thought they were in international waters and he had put in place measures to make sure it did not happen again.
At a briefing with Campbell on Wednesday, Morrison said: “Australia also respects Indonesia’s territorial sovereignty. Our operations reflect this commitment to the government of Indonesia, and will continue to do so, and any suggestion to the contrary is false.”
But on Friday morning, he and Campbell called another briefing to reveal there had been several inadvertent incursions into Indonesian waters, and to express the government’s “deep regret” that this had happened, and to announce the incidents were being investigated by a review set up by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and the chief of the defence force, who are jointly response for border command.
Morrison and Campbell did not say how long it would take to undertake the review, and said any public release of its findings were up to those undertaking it.
“The report will be the property of the chief executive of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and the chief of the defence force. It will be up to them to determine whether it is released,” Morrison said.
The mistake was discovered on Wednesday afternoon, when an official at Operation Sovereign Borders was reviewing reports from the vessels involved, with Campbell immediately informing the minister. Officials then went back through earlier vessel reports.
Indonesia had already reacted angrily to Australia’s apparent policy of towing back of asylum-seeker boats to the Indonesian maritime border and then leaving them in newly purchased lifeboats with just enough fuel to get back to Indonesia.
“Developments of the type that has been reported in the media, namely the facilitation by way of boats, this is the kind of slippery slope that we have identified in the past,” Natalegawa said. “Where will this lead to?”
Prof Tim Lindsey, of the Melbourne law school, said the inadvertent violation of Indonesia’s maritime border could trigger a strong reaction.
“Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty is an extremely touchy issue. Indonesia has no coherent navy and no real capacity to patrol its 17,400 islands, so when it comes to maritime sovereignty, its political response is really its last line of defence,” he said.
The Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the violation was “an inevitable side-effect” of the Abbott government’s policy, which was “causing chaos on the high seas”.
“Two days ago Scott Morrison said that this would never happen, but now we know it has. How can the Australian people and the Indonesian government be expected to trust what he says now?” she asked.
Morrison and Campbell refused to discuss anything that Operation Sovereign Borders does “on water”. Campbell also refused to say whether the government still had all the lifeboats it had purchased – despite reports that at least one had been used to push asylum seekers back to Indonesia.
“As I indicated, I am not going to comment on the potential or actual use of the lifeboats,” he said.
But – responding to multiple accounts from asylum seekers who said they had been towed back to Indonesia while being told they were being taken to Christmas Island – Campbell said: “It is very clear the orders do not invite Australian personnel to lie.”
Morrison insisted the Australian government would not “let this setback get in the way of the job we were elected to do, and that is to stop the boats”.
Natalegawa said Jakarta deplored the incursions and demanded a specific explanation from Australia about the incidents and that steps be taken to avoid such breaches in the future.
Indonesia wants to address the asylum-seeker issue in a comprehensive manner, he said. “Australia’s unilateral operations are not helpful,” he told reporters in Bagan, Burma, where he was attending a gathering of regional foreign ministers.
The country will also intensify maritime patrols, said Agus.
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