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Fisherman who returned asylum-seekers to Indonesia says he was deceived by Australia

Sydney Morning Herald - March 10, 2016

Jewel Topsfield and Amilia Rosa, Jakarta A fisherman who helped return six Bangladeshis to Indonesia said he felt deceived by Australian authorities and would not have taken the men if he had known they were asylum seekers.

And the Indonesian foreign ministry reiterated on Thursday that Indonesia did not support Australia's unilateral boat turn-back policy, especially when carried out in the middle of the sea.

The latest incident at sea comes at a sensitive time, with the Bali Process the main regional forum to combat people smuggling to be held in Bali on March 22 and 23.

A ministerial conference is normally held every two years but did not go ahead last year amid tensions between the two co-chairs Indonesia and Australia over the boat push-back policy and executions.

The skipper of the asylum seeker boat, Isai Rano, 34, said he and another Indonesian had been offered 92 million rupiah (about $AUD9000) to take the six Bangladeshis to Australia. They left on March 3 but were rescued by an Australian Border Force maritime patrol three days later after their boat sank.

Gab Oma, a 39-year-old fisherman from Kupang, said he and other Indonesian fishermen were fishing nearby when they were asked by Australian authorities to return the men to Indonesia. "We feel uncomfortable because of what the Australian Navy did by handing over the six Bangladeshi immigrants," said Mr Gab.

"They are people who are under a lot of stress. If they knew they were being returned to Indonesia, it's possible they would have taken over our boat and sailed back to Australia. If they were immigrants and people smugglers why not hand them straight over to the Indonesian government, why give them to fishermen?"

Mr Gab said Australian authorities gave Indonesian fishermen, who were fishing near Ashmore Reef, two sacks of rice, two boxes of bottled water, two 30 litre fuel jugs, soft drinks, eight life jackets and snacks, and asked them to return eight men to Kupang.

"If we knew they were immigrants we would have said no. We were told a fisherman from a sunk boat, so we thought it was our Indonesian brothers. In fact we were handed over Bangladeshi immigrants. Honestly we were deceived."

Mr Gab said the transfer of the Bangladeshi and Indonesian passengers from the Australian ship took place in Indonesian waters.

"We were 28 miles from Amarasi beach. I know, I checked the GPS on board, no mistake. We lose out. We hadn't caught anything (fish) yet, but we were told to go back with six immigrants and two people smugglers."

Mr Gab said the fishermen kept a close eye on the Bangladeshis on the trip back to Kupang and alerted the East Nusa Tenggara water police.

East Nusa Tenggara police chief Teddy Marbun told Fairfax Media that Mr Isai and the second crew member had been determined people smuggler suspects. "The six immigrants said they headed for Australia to seek asylum," Mr Teddy said.

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the government did not comment on operational matters.

However Australian Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg tweeted that an Australian Border Force maritime patrol had assisted an Indonesian vessel in distress. "The vessel was NOT scuttled was unseaworthy and sank. Pax (passengers) assisted & okay," tweeted

Australia's boat push-back policy is a running sore in the bilateral relationship. Indonesia sees the policy as a threat to its sovereignty and believes it put lives at risk and is not a sustainable solution.

In 2014 Australia apologised for Australian naval incursions into Indonesian waters while pushing back boats carrying asylum seekers.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said on Thursday the ministry had received a notification from Australian Maritime Border Command on March 7 that Indonesian fishermen had issued a distress call.

He said the notification did not mention Bangladeshi people. "We are currently coordinating with Bakamla (Indonesian maritime security agency) to find out about the information accurately," he said.

"In general, Indonesia's position remains that we don't support unilateral action on boat turn-backs, especially when it is carried out in the middle of the sea. Not only is that dangerous but it will not solve the problem of the the illegal movement of persons. The cooperation of countries of origin, transit and destination is the main pillar to solve the problem."

[With Karuni Rompies.]

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/fisherman-who-returned-asylumseekers-to-indonesia-says-he-was-deceived-by-australia-20160310-gnfsfh.html.

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