JAKARTA: Indonesia has failed to assist several boats in trouble near its shores in the past month, with observers saying it has neither the ability nor the inclination to save asylum seekers stranded at sea.
Australia has repeatedly been forced to lead rescue missions off Java island, and on Wednesday dispatched rescue ships after a distress call from a rickety vessel stuck in rough seas.
The Australian navy rescued more than 160 people on the boat, which ran into trouble just 63 nautical miles off Java in the same stretch of waters where an estimated 90 people drowned on June 21.
Australia had alerted Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) about the earlier boat two days before it capsized.
But Basarnas failed to reach the vessel, forcing Australian rescuers to intervene and save the remaining 110 on board. Four died when another vessel capsized barely a week later.
“Indonesia is still reluctant to carry out this kind of rescue operation, so the emergency response is slow,” Bantarto Bandoro from Indonesia’s National Defence University told AFP.
“Unlike Australia, Indonesia seems to have no standard operating procedure, so when something happens at sea, the coordination is all very ad hoc, and the different agencies like to blame each other when something goes wrong.”
Bandoro acknowledged that Indonesian leaders lacked the political will to tackle the issue, as they essentially see the issue as an Australian problem.
“The attitude of Indonesian politicians is they’d prefer to mind their own business. They tend to see asylum-seekers as Australia’s problem.”
Basarnas admits it is dismally ill-equipped for the rough Indian Ocean stretch between Indonesia and Australia’s Christmas Island, which is closer to Java than mainland Australia.
“We still lack the equipment and skills to carry out these operations well. Australia has been assisting us in recent years, but we know we need to improve our response,” said Basarnas chief Daryatmo, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.
He said that Basarnas had only two boats on Java equipped for rough seas, which on Wednesday also slowed down Australian rescue efforts.
Indonesia does little to patrol the southern waters that asylum seekers traverse to reach Australia as the country has “no security threats there”, defence ministry spokesman Hartind Asrin said.
“Our maritime security is focused mainly in the northern part in the Malacca Strait (between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore) because we have issues with pirates there,” Asrin said.
Asylum seekers mostly from the Middle East and Sri Lanka have for years used Indonesia as a transit hub and board rickety fishing vessels to make the perilous journey, with many drowning along the way.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard agreed in Darwin in northern Australia this week to boost cooperation in rescue missions.
Indonesia accepted four Hercules aircraft decommissioned by Australia to help the country better monitor its own waters. Canberra gave Indonesia five police boats in 2002 for the same cause.
“The Indonesian search and rescue authorities have neither the capacity nor the inclination to go chasing asylum-seeker boats that have left Indonesia. They’re happy to see the back of them”, Tony Kevin, a former Australian diplomat who has written books on refugee boat disasters, told AFP.
That was the case in the June 21 incident, he said, adding that the disaster was a “result of Australia simply batting the problem to Indonesia”.
“Occasionally we seem to sit on our hands, pass the message to the Indonesian search and rescue authority and say ‘they’re in your search and rescue zone, you handle it’,” he said. “When that happens, people usually die.”
While asylum seekers rate little mention in Indonesia’s political discourse, they are an explosive long-standing political issue in Australia that dominated elections in 2001 and again in 2010, which saw a record 6,555 arrivals.
Gillard has tried to tout a “regional solution”, but plans for offshore processing centres and a refugee-swap deal with Malaysia have been repeatedly shot down in Australia’s parliament and high court.