Australia confused by Indonesia's rejection of two boatloads of asylum seekers

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday there was "no rhyme or reason" as to why Indonesia had accepted two boatloads of asylum seekers picked up by Australian vessels but refused others.

Thousands of asylum seekers, many from Iran and Afghanistan, board rickety wooden boats in Indonesia every year to try to make the perilous sea crossing to Australia.

Stopping the influx was a key issue at September elections won by Mr Tony Abbott, who vowed to turn boats back to Indonesia when it was safe to do so - a policy received coolly by Jakarta, which on Monday took issue with the immigration minister's comments.

Mr Morrison said two boatloads of asylum seekers intercepted by Australian ships had previously been accepted by Indonesian authorities.

But Jakarta refused to take about 60 people picked up south of Java by an Australian vessel on Thursday.

"There's no real rhyme or reason to it, necessarily," Mr Morrison told commercial radio when asked why some boats were accepted and others rejected.

"I think this last instance became very problematic because it went very public," he said, adding that he had promised Jakarta that such incidents would be handled in a direct and discreet manner.

Mr Morrison said Indonesia did not accept the passengers from one other stricken boat but "on that occasion we were a much further distance away than we were on this most recent occasion".

"On some occasions it'll happen, on other occasions it won't," he said.

In the latest incident, Mr Morrison decided to send the group to Christmas Island, from where they will be sent to Papua New Guinea or the Pacific island nation of Nauru, rather than risk keeping them and the crew of the Australian boat at sea.

He said there had been no prospect of turning back the latest boat, which was intercepted in Indonesia's search and rescue zone and near its coastline, because it was sinking and had been deemed unseaworthy.

In Jakarta, presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah responded: "I don't know what he (Morrison) means." He added that because the Australians had responded to a distress call, "they should provide thorough assistance".

"If Indonesia had received the distress call, Indonesia would have dealt with it," the spokesman said.

Mr Morrison denied Australia's border protection policy was failing but admitted the situation was "very frustrating".

The incident comes as Canberra's relationship with Jakarta is under pressure after reports earlier this month that Australia's overseas diplomatic posts were involved in a vast US-led surveillance network.

These allegations were followed by a report citing a document from US whistleblower Edward Snowden showing that Australia and the US mounted a joint surveillance operation on Indonesia during 2007 UN climate talks in Bali.

Asked about the boat incident on Monday, Prime Minister Abbott said he would not "make too much" of what happened, but suggested that Jakarta had a responsibility to accept those on the boat.

"These people were in a search and rescue situation in the Indonesian search and rescue zone," Mr Abbott told a Sydney radio station.

"Now, the normal international law is that if you are rescued in a country's search and rescue zone, that country has an obligation to take you." The number of unauthorised boat arrivals has dropped significantly since the new government was elected, with none for almost three weeks before the latest incident.