Indonesia proposes Australia asylum talks

Kevin Rudd talks to the media on 26 June 2013
Image caption Mr Rudd, who ousted Julia Gillard as prime minister last week, praised the Indonesian leader's move

Indonesia's president has offered to hold a regional meeting on people-smuggling, at talks with new Australian leader Kevin Rudd.

The talks should involve countries of origin, transit and destination, a joint communique said.

In recent months the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia via Indonesia has increased sharply.

It is expected to be one of the key issues in Australia's general election, due later this year.

The meeting between President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, which took place in Bogor, near Jakarta, also focused on the cattle trade.

It was Mr Rudd's first overseas visit since he ousted Julia Gillard as Labor Party leader last week.

Mr Rudd has indicated he will move the election - currently set for 14 September - but has not specified a date.

'No unilateral actions'

Boat arrivals in Australia have soared in the past year, with most asylum seekers coming from Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. They make their way to Indonesia and from there head to Christmas Island, the closest part of Australian territory to Java.

Last year, the government reintroduced a controversial policy under which people arriving by boat in Australia are sent to camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for processing.

It said the move was needed to prevent people making the dangerous journey to Australia on overcrowded and rickety boats, several of which have sunk in recent years.

But the policy has been strongly criticised by rights groups and has so far failed to deter new arrivals.

As the two leaders met, agencies from both nations were involved in a search for a vessel carrying 80 asylum seekers that was reported to be in distress off Java.

Later reports citing Indonesian officials suggested it had fixed its engine and was continuing its journey.

A communique issued after the meeting between Mr Rudd and Mr Yudhoyono stressed "the importance of avoiding unilateral actions which might jeopardise such a comprehensive regional approach and might cause operational and other difficulties to any party".

This has been interpreted as a reference to Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott's plans to turn back asylum boats to Indonesia if safe to do so.

Instead it called for a multilateral approach involving inviting "key origin, transit and destination countries" to a conference "to explore concrete operational and policy responses, including regional approaches and efforts to enhance border security".

"Everybody must take responsibility and must take concrete action," AFP news agency quoted Mr Yudhoyono as saying. "It is unfair if only Indonesia and Australia are burdened with this."

The communique gave no date for the talks but Australian media reports said they were expected within a month.

Mr Rudd welcomed the move. "This problem of people smuggling is a problem for our entire region, therefore the president's initiative is for all of us to work together," the Australian Broadcasting Corporation quoted him as saying.

Mr Rudd also pledged funding to help develop Indonesia's cattle industry while calling for quotas on Australia cattle imports to be lifted, ABC reported.

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