SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia told a group of rescued Sri Lankan asylum-seekers they could not choose their destination and refused to rule out using force after they refused to disembark in Indonesia.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith insisted the group of 78, currently on an Australian ship, would be processed in Indonesia under a new agreement between the countries and urged patience despite an embarrassing 11-day time-lag.
"When someone is rescued on the high seas in the Indonesian search and rescue area, and Indonesia and Australia agree where they should be offloaded, it's not a matter of the choice of the asylum seekers on board where they make that claim," he told public broadcaster ABC late on Wednesday.
"The agreement between Australia and Indonesia is an agreement that they will be processed in Indonesia. We remain confident that if we're patient, that we can effect that in accordance with the agreement made between President (Susilo Bambang) Yudhoyono and the prime minister."
The stand-off has raised questions about Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's "Indonesian Solution" to the asylum-seeker problem brokered with Yudhoyono after more than 30 rickety boats were stopped off Australia this year.
The 78 Sri Lankans were intercepted by Australia's navy on October 18 and transferred to an Australian customs ship after getting into trouble in Indonesian waters.
Smith has played down reports the boat carrying the Sri Lankans, who come from the country's war-ravaged north, was deliberately sabotaged to force the rescue.
Australia has acknowledged handing over financial aid to help Indonesia, a major staging post for asylum-seekers, intercept and detain the refugee boats which have long been the subject of fierce domestic debate.
However, the policy has come under fire from activists who highlight the poor quality of Indonesia's detention facilities and its failure to sign the 1951 UN refugee convention.
The Sri Lankans were initially sent to a port on the main island of Java before being diverted to Bintan island, where the provincial governor refused to house them and said Indonesia should not be a "dumping ground" for refugees.