Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says Indonesian officials have told her most of the 7,000 people stranded in the South-East Asia boat crisis are illegal labourers, not refugees.
At a foreign ministers’ meeting in Seoul on Friday, Ms Bishop said she was told only 30 to 40 per cent of the people stuck in camps or on boats in the region are Rohingya asylum seekers.
“They (Indonesia) believe there are about 7,000 people at sea (and) they think about 30 to 40 per cent are Rohingya, the rest are Bangladeshi,” Ms Bishop said.
“They are not, in Indonesia’s words, asylum seekers, they are not refugees — they are illegal labourers. They’ve been promised or are seeking jobs in Malaysia.
“They said the Rohingya have gone to Bangladesh and have mixed up with the Bangladeshis who are coming to Malaysia in particular for jobs.”
Ms Bishop said Indonesia’s director-general of multilateral affairs, Hasan Kleib, told her one boat carrying 600 people had 400 Bangladeshis aboard.
She described Indonesia’s comments as “very pointed … they said that’s what their intelligence had informed them”.
Ms Bishop’s comments come as Myanmar’s navy successfully carried out its first rescue of a migrant boat on Friday, bringing more than 200 Bangladeshis ashore after discovering two boats in the nation’s waters.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier this week defended the language he used in refusing to resettle any of the asylum seekers in Australia, saying it would be “utterly irresponsible” to encourage people to get on boats.
On Thursday, when asked whether Australia would take any of the refugees, he replied “nope, nope, nope”.
Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi criticised the position.
In an interview with American network CNN, she was asked what she made of Australia’s refusal to accept asylum seekers “through the back door”.
Ms Marsudi replied that it was “not fair” to make the problem an Indonesian one.
“The cooperation should come from country of origin and country of transit and country of destination,” she said.
Ms Bishop said Indonesia did not criticise Mr Abbott’s remarks at the meeting yesterday.
“No one raised any questions about the Prime Minister’s comments,” Ms Bishop said.