SYDNEY: Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono arrives in Australia today amid a political storm over people-smuggling, with the “evil trade” looming large in talks with Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
The Indonesian head of state will touch down in the northern city of Darwin for an annual high-level meeting with Australia’s leader.
“I will be talking to the president of Indonesia over today and tomorrow about our economic links… about our people-to-people links, about our joint strategic interests in the region in which we live,” Gillard told ABC Radio.
“Of course we will also be talking about the evil trade of people smuggling.”
Canberra is struggling to deal with a steady influx of asylum-seekers coming to Australia by boat, many of whom use Indonesia as a transit hub, boarding leaky wooden vessels there after fleeing states such as Afghanistan and Iran.
While the numbers are not large on a global scale, with around 5,250 coming so far in 2012, boatpeople are a politically explosive issue in Australia, with the matter a key concern in the 2010 election.
More than 90 people have drowned in recent days after their boats sank en route.
Asked about whether whether Indonesia had the resources to conduct mass rescues at sea, Gillard said: “We will be talking about these questions as we talk through the full suite of our relationship.”
Indonesian’s consul in Darwin Ade Padmo Sarwono also told the ABC that people-smuggling will be high on the agenda when the leaders meet for formal talks on Tuesday.
Gillard wants to deter boatpeople by transferring them to Malaysia for processing, in exchange for accepting thousands of that nation’s registered refugees for resettlement.
But her minority government has been unable to pass the required legislation through parliament because the left-leaning Greens and conservative opposition have refused to back it.
Conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott has pledged to “stop the boats” by turning back vessels where possible and otherwise processing asylum-seekers on the Pacific island nation of Nauru.