BAGAN, MYANMAR – Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said today that Australia‘s recent incursions into Indonesian waters were “disturbing” and said that Canberra’s apologies for the recent incidents were not enough.
“We find it unacceptable for them to simply say that it is something that had taken place without their knowledge,” says Mr. Natalegawa, speaking to the Monitor today after a meeting of southeast Asian foreign ministers in the northern Myanmar town of Bagan.
Australia apologized to its northern neighbor earlier today, saying that Australian naval operations to stop so-called “boat people” from entering Australian waters had “inadvertently” crossed into Indonesian domain. Australia said that the navy’s moves were due to technical errors and happened without the government’s knowledge.
Natalegawa described the Australian version of events as “perplexing,” and said that he would “like to think that there is a command and control for operations of the Australian Navy.”
Indonesia remains a key transit point for people fleeing conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Syria. In the past six years, more than 50,000 asylum seekers have attempted the dangerous trip and more than 1,000 are believed to have drowned. Refugees pay to travel on rickety boats aiming for Australian territory, often heading first for Christmas Island, an Australian island in the Indian Ocean 220 miles south of Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, but nearly a thousand miles north of the Australian mainland.
In the run-up to Australia’s 2013 election both the incumbent Labor Party and the eventual winner, the Liberal Party led by current Prime Minister Tony Abbott, vowed to curb the number of asylum seekers reaching Australia, which spiked during Labor’s latter years in office.
After winning power, Mr. Abbott launched “Operation Sovereign Borders” to stop asylum seekers from reaching Australia. In the first 100 days of the program, 1,106 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat, an 87 percent drop from the previous 100 days. Arrivals are now at their lowest point since 2008.
The United Nations has questioned the legality of the program, however, particularly the practice of pushing boats back from Australian waters.
“Any such approach would raise significant issues and potentially place Australia in breach of its obligations under the  Refugee Convention and other international law obligations,” said Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN Refugee Agency, speaking in Geneva on Jan. 10.
To curb the arrivals, however, Australia needs the help of Indonesia, a 17,000-island archipelago that stretches a distance roughly the same as that from Ireland to Iraq.
Australian hopes of cooperating with Jakarta on asylum seekers have floundered since late last year when Edward Snowden leaked documents alleging that Australia spied on senior Indonesian officials, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The reports sparked a furious backlash in Indonesia and prompted a freeze in relations. Natalegawa said coordinated patrols by Indonesia and Australia had been suspended due to “an unrelated and yet equally important issue, namely Australia’s unauthorized surveillance of our leaders and of Indonesia.”