Australia 'forces' asylum seeker boat back to Indonesia: reports

Australia has turned back at least one asylum-seeker boat to Indonesia, believed to be the first time the Abbott government has fulfilled its tough border protection pledge, in a move that has the potential to increase tensions between the two countries.

Australian and Indonesian sources have confirmed to Fairfax Media that at least one asylum-seeker vessel has been turned around. It is understood that the Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Stuart performed a "turn-back" in the past week.

The asylum-seekers aboard the boat were given life-jackets and communications equipment before being directed to the nearest land, which was Indonesia, a Defence source said.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison refused on Tuesday to comment on Indonesian media reports that a boat had been turned around.

There are conflicting reports as to the precise dates of the incidents and how many times it has happened.

Indonesian water police told Fairfax Media that two boats have been turned back by the Australian Navy, one on Monday and one in December.

The boat from Monday carried 45 passengers, 36 of whom were male and nine female, mostly asylum-seekers from Africa though with several from the Middle East, according to Indonesian police sources.

The boat from December carried 48 asylum-seekers from Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea and Iran.

The Jakarta Post says a boat carrying 45 ''illegal immigrants from Africa and the Middle East'' was about to enter Australian waters on Monday but was ''immediately forced into Indonesian waters''. 

The ABC quotes Indonesia's government newswire Antara as reporting that a boat carrying 47 asylum seekers was intercepted by the Australian navy on December 13 and ''forced back'' to Indonesia.

Both news reports are attributed to the Indonesian police chief Hidayat.

In a statement on Tuesday morning, Mr Morrison said the government would not comment on reports of ''on-water activities'' for ''operational security reasons''.

''Australia respects Indonesia's territorial sovereignty and will continue to do so, just as Indonesia has stated it respects Australia's territorial sovereignty,'' he said in a statement.

''It is not the policy or practice of the Australian government to violate Indonesian territorial sovereignty. Any suggestion to the contrary is false.

''People should not seek to come to Australia illegally by boat. It is dangerous and the Australian government's strong border protection policies under Operation Sovereign Borders mean that they will not succeed in what they set out to achieve.''

Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said Mr Morrison needed to clarify on Tuesday what had happened and the circumstances in which the alleged incident occurred.

''We should not be finding out from the Indonesian media before we find out from our own government,'' Senator Hanson-Young said.

The asylum seekers ''could have drowned'', she said, adding that the towback practice was dangerous and legally questionable.

When the Abbott government took office Mr Morrison said he would give weekly briefings to update the public on his ''Operation Sovereign Borders'' asylum seeker policy and the number of boat arrivals.

He established a routine of holding a press conference every Friday, in which, accompanied by Sovereign Borders commander Angus Campbell, Mr Morrison would give a statement and then answer journalists' questions.

But the Friday before Christmas, Mr Morrison told journalists that would be his last question and answer session for the year and he would be issuing written statements instead.

Mr Morrison's promise to ''turn back boats where it is safe to do so'' was a key plank of the Abbott government's election promise to ''stop the boats''.

But the Indonesian government does not accept the turn-back policy, and Jakarta's irritation with the plan was inflamed further during the recent diplomatic feud over revelations that the Australian government monitored the phones of the Indonesian president and his wife.

Mr Morrison tried to return a boatload of asylum seekers to Indonesia in early November but failed to convince Indonesian officials to accept its return.

The Abbott government capitulated and ordered a Customs boat to take the asylum seekers to Christmas Island.

with Amilia Rosa

SMH.COM.AU

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