By Christian Edwards
SYDNEY, (PNA/Xinhua) — Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott Monday is flying to Jakarta for his first high-level talks since Indonesian police reported the drowning deaths of scores of asylum seekers, mostly children, following the sinking of an Australia-bound boat off West Java on the weekend.
According to Indonesian officials, four more asylum seekers were recovered Monday, bringing the total death toll to 36, while more than 20 remain missing.
Facing a wave of criticism at home and abroad, the Australian Navy has also sent more than 40 asylum seekers back to Indonesia, after intercepting the vessel off the coast of Java. This forced return to Indonesian waters will be the core issue for Abbott and his Indonesian counterpart President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, amid fraying ties between the two pacific neighbors.
The passengers, the greater majority from Lebanon and Yemen were on route to Christmas Island, seeking refugee status under the UNHCR charter. Some of those survivors have been sent into detention on the very same island Monday, according to both Australian and Indonesian officials.
“(There are) 20 dead bodies floating in the water, most of them are children,” a police official from West Java told reporters.
The sunken vessel was reportedly carrying 120 people.
The latest boat, carrying 44 asylum seekers, issued a distress call 40 nautical miles off Java Saturday.
Just 28 survivors have been found alive since the boat, which was carrying about 80 people from Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq, broke apart near a beach in the district of Agrabinta in West Java on Friday morning.
The Lebanese foreign ministry has confirmed there were 68 Lebanese, including children, on board the ill-fated vessel.
The Australian Navy intercepted the asylum vessel, after their Indonesian counterparts responded that they did not have the resources to effectively execute a rescue on high-seas.
Confusion has veiled the operation, however at leat one report suggests the asylum seekers called the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), hoping to be taken to Australia.
Concerned Lebanese officials have indicated local family would travel to Indonesia to reunite with survivors and identify victims that have been recovered.
While a growing number of Syrians have made the journey across the border to Akkar since March 2011, many of the desperate, fleeing a two year old civil war, have been lured into making the high-risk sea trip to Australia by alleged ‘people smugglers.’
Despite a federal election replete with coalition and L ‘race- to-the-bottom,’ on refugee restrictions, many thousands of asylum- seekers have traveled by boat to Australia this year alone, and hundreds may have already lost their lives, trying to make the journey.
The Australian Navy only handed asylum seekers back to Indonesian authorities once during the six years of the last Labor government.
Suyatno said he did not know why Australia did not take the asylum seekers to Christmas Island all along.This rescue and return of asylum seekers reflects Abbott’s ‘no- quarter’ approach to asylum seekers.
After an overtly transparent Gillard government, the coalition appears to be standing by its it’s policy of not commenting on the operational details of any intercepts at sea under Operation Sovereign Borders.
Unsurprisingly in such a climate, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, last week ordered all his ministers to seek approval from the PM’ s office before speaking to the media, for any reason.
The accusation throughout Australian left-wing media is that Abbott’s government has turned a humanitarian response into a military operation.
On Monday, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison made clear that as such, operational matters would not be revealed.
As the body count rises, the forced return of passengers to Java, by the Australian forces has undermined Indonesian authorities, effectively passing responsibility for the asylum seekers onto foreign authorities in contravention of the UN charter for refugees.
This latest incident comes hot on the back of a diplomatic stand-off which continues to simmer between Australia and Indonesia about the handling of asylum boats.
Abbott is daring stormy waters himself, with anger brimming in Indonesia over his policies to turn back asylum-seeker boats, essentially bribe villagers for information and buy-to-burn boats to keep them out of the hands of people smugglers.
Abbott, one month into his premiership, faces his first trial- by-fire when he meets Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta.
Meanwhile, Australia’s as yet untested Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has already lost the confidence of her Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa, who displayed her disdain by releasing detailed notes of their meeting in New York to smother suggestions of agreement on the issue and in defiance of Bishop’s hopes of quiet negotiations behind closed doors.
Concerns are developing form both sides that the current Australian policy has planted the seeds of conflict where incidents at sea between the two nations’ navies can escalate into something uncontainable.
Desperate to play down the schism, Abbott told reporters the stand-off was little more than a “passing irritant.”
As tensions between the two countries over the Coalition’s border protection policy seemingly spins out of control, with deaths and criticism mounting, Prime Minister Abbott sought to reassure Australian observers that Indonesia was very much a partner and not a critic.
“The last thing,” Abbott said, “I would ever want to do is anything that doesn’t show the fullest possible respect for Indonesia.”
He will have the opportunity to prove that over the next few critical days in this key regional relationship.