Australia returns asylum-seekers to Indonesia in lifeboat

Sharmarke Abdullahi, a Somali asylum seeker, holds a map bearing the directions to Indonesia for the asylum seekers on their boat, in Kupang January 28, 2014.

CILACAP, Indonesia - A lifeboat carrying asylum-seekers has washed up on Indonesia’s main Java island, with those on board saying Australian authorities transferred them to the vessel and turned it around, officials said Tuesday.

It was the latest asylum-seeker turn-back by Canberra under its military-led operation aimed at stopping an influx of would-be refugees who board rickety boats in Indonesia and make the perilous sea crossing to Australia.

It was the second occasion this month that one of the orange, hard-hulled boats purchased by the Australian navy has washed up on Java. The asylum-seekers on the first occasion also reportedly claimed the Australians had turned them around.

In the latest incident 26 asylum-seekers and five Indonesian crew were detained by Indonesian authorities at Karangjambe beach on Java’s south coast Monday, local navy officer Suwarto told AFP.

The boat was carrying would-be refugees from countries including Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt, said Suwarto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

“The orange lifeboat which originated from Australia... became stranded on a coral reef near the beach,” he said, adding it appeared to have sprung a leak.

Local immigration official Imam Prawira added: “The migrants told us Australian authorities had put them into the lifeboat and turned them around.” It was not clear how close they were to Australia when they were turned around.

Authorities in the Kebumen district of Central Java province also found a television, navigation equipment, batteries, floats and food in the boat, Suwarto said.

The issue of asylum-seekers has strained relations between Australia and Indonesia, which were already under pressure due to a row over spying, with Jakarta criticising Canberra’s hardline policies.

Ties were further soured when Canberra apologised to Jakarta for breaching Indonesian waters during its people-smuggling crackdown.

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison last month confirmed for the first time that boats were being turned around as part of the government’s military-led Operation Sovereign Borders.

Under the operation, asylum-seekers can also be turned round in their original vessels if it is safe to do so.

No boats have made it to Australia since December 19 – the first time in six years that January has passed without a single boat arrival.

Hundreds of asylum-seekers have died making the dangerous sea voyage from Indonesia to Australia in recent years.