Prime Minister Kevin Rudd secured Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s support to intensify efforts to stop the flow of boat people to Australia, as he looks to gain traction with voters ahead of an election.
Rudd left Jakarta yesterday after a meeting with Yudhoyono produced agreement for Indonesia to host a meeting of officials from asylum seekers’ home countries. The Australian government is seeking to stop the problem at its source, a change from previous efforts which have focused on preventing people smugglers from operating out of Indonesia.
The meeting will include representatives of countries including Thailand, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Iran and Myanmar, Yudhoyono said. “We want these countries to sit together seriously and find a solution,” he told reporters yesterday in Bogor, West Java, without giving a date for the talks.
Increased asylum-seeker boat arrivals have contributed to waning voter support for Rudd’s ruling Labor party ahead of this year’s elections, with opposition leader Tony Abbott pledging to “stop the boats.” Yudhoyono’s decision means Rudd, a former diplomat who ousted Julia Gillard as leader last week, can claim some progress from his trip, political analyst Zareh Ghazarian said.
“This is exactly the sort of outcome Rudd was after,” said Ghazarian, a lecturer in politics at Monash University. “The pressure will be on the coalition and Abbott to explain what they would do that is different.”
The announcement came amid news that a boat carrying asylum seekers was in distress off the southern coast of Java and had requested assistance from Australia.
The HMAS Larrakia patrol boat was on the scene and an Australian plane had flown over the vessel, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in Twitter posts on its website, without specifying the number of people on board the boat seeking help. Merchant vessels were also going to the area, it said.
“I salute you, Mr. President, on your bold initiative to hold in a medium period ahead a ministerial conference to bring about a concrete action to reduce the problem for all of us,” Rudd told Yudhoyono during their post-meeting press conference.
Yudhoyono said he is confident that Indonesia and Australia can increase their “friendship” under Rudd’s leadership.
Malcolm Fraser, who was a Liberal-National prime minister of Australia from 1975 to 1983, said in a July 3 interview that Abbott’s policy of towing back boats -- often rickety and leaking -- into Indonesian waters was “ludicrous.”
Asylum seekers from war-torn countries have used Indonesia as a stepping stone to seek asylum in Australia. Between 2002 and 2004, 69 refugees arrived in Australia on three boats; last year, 17,202 came on 278 vessels, according to figures from the Refugee Council of Australia.
A total of 805 asylum seekers died on their way to Australia since October 2009, according to the Department of Immigration.
Successive governments have struggled with limiting boat arrivals. Then-leader Gillard last year reopened processing centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, which some commentators said was a return to former Prime Minister John Howard’s policy of holding applicants in offshore processing camps or remote onshore detention centers.
A Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper July 1 showed Rudd led Abbott as preferred leader 49 percent to 35 percent. Labor trailed the coalition by two percentage points on a two-party preferred measure, designed to gauge which party is most likely to form government under Australia’s preferential voting system, from 14 percentage points the week before.
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