Australia says Indonesia free to raise asylum policy with US

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia said Jakarta was free to bring up Canberra's hardline asylum-seeker policy with the United States after the Indonesian foreign minister was reported as saying he would raise the issue with the visiting US Secretary of State.

Australia's "Operation Sovereign Borders" - which sees asylum-seeker boats turned back as a deterrent to people-smugglers - has tested ties between Canberra and Indonesia, a major transit hub for would-be refugees from countries including Afghanistan and Myanmar.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the policy was "against the values of humanity" and that he intends to raise the matter with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Australia's ABC television reported.

Mr Kerry arrived in Indonesia on Saturday for a two-day trip as part of an Asia tour in which he also visited Seoul and Beijing.

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told ABC on Sunday that Indonesia was "welcome" to raise the asylum-seekers issue with the United States.

The outcome of such talks would be a "matter for Secretary Kerry, it's also a matter for the Indonesians. I'm sure they'll have a lot to talk about during his visit", he said.

Tensions flared in January when Morrison revealed that Australia's navy had "inadvertently" intruded into Indonesian sovereign waters on several occasions during border patrol operations.

"We've held a very consistent dialogue with Indonesia over all of these issues and that's been continuing... But one of the long standing irritants to this relationship has been this issue of vessels coming to Australia," he said.

"We're looking forward to the time, hopefully not too far into the future, where it is addressed and the relationship can move onto other matters."

He also dismissed as "false" reports from Indonesia that Australian incursions into its sovereign waters had been deliberate, insisting that an official inquiry had found it "wasn't intentional at all".

An Indonesian navy report obtained by The Guardian Australia last week found that the incursions took place often and with ease, also documenting evidence of alleged mistreatment of asylum-seekers by Australian personnel.

Indonesian navy spokesman Commodore Untung Suropati told The Guardian that modern navigational and positioning equipment was very advanced, saying it was "not reasonable if it (the incursions) is said to be unintentional or not knowing".

"The Australian navy has violated Indonesian territory," said Suropati.

Mr Morrison refused to comment on the details of the territorial infringements, with an internal Australian defence review still under way, but rejected suggestions that they were deliberate.

He also repeated denials that asylum-seekers had been mistreated by Australia's navy, dismissing them as "unsubstantiated claims by persons who have large vested interests" to undermine public support for the policy.

Since assuming power last year, Australia's conservative government has taken an increasingly hardline stance against people-smugglers and asylum-seekers under Operation Sovereign Borders.

It includes turning boats back to Indonesia and sending anyone who arrives illegally to Pacific island camps for processing with no chance of settlement in Australia.

Hundreds of asylum-seekers have died making the sea voyage from Indonesia in recent years, with people-smugglers charging huge sums for passage on rickety wooden fishing boats.

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