Australia, Indonesia in talks on refugee ‘swap’

SYDNEY - Australia and Indonesia are discussing a people "swap" deal under which Jakarta would take asylum-seekers from Australia if Canberra agreed to take some of its refugees, an Indonesian government advisor said Tuesday.

Asylum-seekers arriving on unauthorised boats in Australia, often via Indonesia, are a sensitive issue for both sides, and Canberra's military-led Operation Sovereign Borders to clamp down on them has raised concerns in Jakarta.

The issue flared last week when Australia rescued some 60 asylum-seekers from a stricken vessel inside Indonesia's search and rescue zone and Jakarta refused to take them back.

"They are talking about agreements," Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an adviser to Indonesian Vice-President Boediono, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"If Indonesia were to take them, the costs of the burdens would be borne by Australia and then at the same time Australia will take the same number of people that are already sitting in detention centres in Indonesia and then they would be processed."

Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Monday suggested Indonesia should have taken the latest group - which were picked up south of Java - because they were in Indonesia's search and rescue zone.

But Anwar said they were not Jakarta's responsibility.

"Because they're not Indonesians. The 65 people are coming from the Middle East," she said. "Indonesia's on the way to Australia. These people pass through Indonesia.

"Australian Navy intercepted the boat and then expect Indonesia to take these people back? They would be social burdens for Indonesia."

The potential deal appears similar to one proposed by Australia's previous Labor government with Malaysia, under which Canberra was to take thousands of registered refugees for resettlement in exchange for the Southeast Asian nation accepting hundreds who arrived in Australia by boat.

The plan never got off the ground after being rejected by the then hung parliament.

Since then, Abbott's conservative government has come to power on a platform which included turning back boats to Indonesia when it was safe to do so - a policy which rankled with Jakarta.

"We were a bit taken aback, when you know, during his campaign then candidate Tony Abbott talked about taking unilateral action," Anwar said.

"I think the Indonesian government has made it very clear that you know we really, really value the close cooperation between Jakarta and Canberra and any policy that one country or the other takes, we should always inform each other about this."