Defence Force chief David Hurley has rejected claims from two men who said they were on board the boats that were towed back into Indonesian waters and that they were mistreated by the Navy.
Though difficult to verify, both men’s stories are strikingly similar.
One man named Yusuf identified himself as a Sudanese asylum seeker, and says he and his wife paid $6,000 to travel from Indonesia to Australia.
They boarded a boat with more than 40 others, and reached a small island off the coast of Darwin before the engine broke down on New Year’s Day.
Yusuf says after the group called the United Nations for help, two Australian naval ships arrived.
The ship numbers he gave correlate to those for HMAS Parramatta and HMAS Glenelg.
Yusuf says the Navy used force on some people, including women, while transferring them to one of the Navy boats.
In a statement, General Hurley said the “Navy, Army and Air Force personnel conduct themselves in a humane and considerate manner that is a credit to them and to the Australian Defence Force (ADF)”.
“Defence Force personnel assigned to Operation RESOLUTE are required to conduct operations in an unpredictable and demanding environment under intense scrutiny,” General Hurley said.
“They are trained to operate with the highest degree of professionalism and integrity and consistently demonstrate great compassion and courage, often at great risk to their own safety.”
Customs later issued a similar statement denying the asylum seekers’ mistreatment claims.
End the secrecy
In a day of intense debate over asylum seeker policy, the Opposition and the Greens called on the government to tell the public what was happening.
In particular, they demanded details on claims two boats were “pushed” back to Indonesia by the Navy.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the secrecy has to end.
“I don’t think it’s fair that no-one in Australia knows what is going on,” he said.
“It’s not enough to say that these matters are on water, therefore the Government can’t tell you what’s going on.
“The Jakarta Post shouldn’t be the way in which Australian taxpayers find out what the Australian Abbott Government is doing.”
Why on earth are Australians finding out more information on what Abbott Govt is doing from the Indonesian military than our own govt?
— Sarah Hanson-Young (@sarahinthesen8) January 8, 2014
Labor has accused the Government of running a “Stalinist” and “North Korean”-style media blackout after refusing to comment on reports Australia will buy 16 lifeboats to ferry asylum seekers back to Indonesia.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott stuck to his guns, saying he is happy to cop criticism if it means stopping asylum seeker boats and that the government wouldn’t comment on “operational” matters.
“I’d rather be criticised a bit for being a bit of a closed book on the issue, and actually stop the boats,” he said.
“I’m pleased to say that it’s now several weeks since we’ve had a boat, and the less we talk about operational details on the water, the better when it comes to stopping the boats.”
Indonesian officials at odds over turn-back policy Indonesian government officials appear at odds over Indonesia’s stance on the turn-back policy, with the country’s military chief saying he agrees with the hardline measure, while the foreign and security affairs ministers reject it.
The chief of Indonesia’s National Armed Forces, General Moeldoko, has told the Jakarta Post that he spoke with General Hurley about asylum seeker boats allegedly forced back into Indonesian waters by the Navy, and that he understands Australia’s policy.
“Following [our] halted military cooperation with Australia, the country’s Defence Force chief called me to discuss several issues, including how to deal with the boat people,” General Moeldoko told the paper.
“I have agreed. Therefore, we don’t need to feel offended.”
A Defence spokesperson told the ABC a “positive” conversation occurred in mid-December between the pair, but declined to comment further on the content.
Mr Abbott says the conversation is evidence that the bilateral relationship remains strong.
He says the Government is acting within its international obligations and the Coalition’s policy is “absolutely non-negotiable”.
“We will do whatever is necessary, consistent with our international obligations and ordinary decency to stop the boats, and that’s exactly what we are doing,” he said.
However a spokesman for the office of Indonesia’s coordinating legal and security affairs minister, which has been assigned to deal with the asylum-seeker issue, says there is no agreement on Australia’s policy, echoing recent comments by foreign minister Marty Natalegawa.
“As far as I know, we have no such agreement,” spokesman Agus Barnas told the Post.
“Also, our office hasn’t been notified about any deals our military made [with Australia’s].”
And Dr Natalegawa this week said: “On the push-back policy itself, let me put on record our rejection of the policy. Pushing back the boats is not a solution.”
Greens question Abbott’s knowledge
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has questioned how much Mr Abbott knew about the alleged agreement between Australia and Indonesia’s military.
“I thought it was astonishing this morning to hear the Prime Minister say ‘A seeming conversation, a conversation that seemed to have occurred’,” she said.
“What is going on? Does the Prime Minister know what is happening out on the high seas or is he just being ‘phony Tony’?
“Is this all about pulling the wool over the eyes of the Australian people?”
Senator Hanson-Young is warning against towing boats back to Indonesia.
“It’s putting the lives of our Australian Navy and Customs personnel at risk,” she said.
Neither Mr Abbott nor Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has been willing to describe what a tow-back operation involves.
In a statement, Mr Morrison repeated that the Government would not comment on “operational” matters.
“For operational security reasons, the Government does not disclose, confirm or otherwise comment on reports of on-water activities in relation to Operation Sovereign Borders,” he said.
Boat arrivals sent to back of queue for family reunion visas
Meanwhile, the Federal Government has moved to make it harder for refugees who arrived by boat and are now living in Australia to be reunited with their families.
Mr Morrison says anyone who arrives by boat will go to the back of the queue when applying for family reunion visas.
The move applies retrospectively to people as far back as 2001.
In a statement, Mr Morrison says those who arrive by boat should not be prioritised over applicants who arrive in Australia through legitimate means.