Australian minister defends refugee policy on Indonesia trip

Australian foreign minister defends her country’s refugee policy on Indonesia trip

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (L) speaks to journalists next to her Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi (R) during a press conference in Jakarta on March 21, 2016.

Australia's foreign minister defended Canberra's controversial refugee policy on Monday during a trip to the key transit nation Indonesia, after Jakarta pressed for more help for people waiting for resettlement.

Asylum-seekers have long been a flashpoint between the two countries, with large numbers who are seeking to reach Australia by boat ending up stranded in Indonesia instead.

The flow of refugees arriving in Australia has largely dried up after Canberra introduced in 2013 a tough policy of turning back vessels when it is safe to do so.

But Indonesia has been riled by the policy that has seen an increasing number of asylum-seeker boats pushed back to its shores, and the government complains it is struggling to shelter large numbers of refugees.

Asylum-seeker advocates gather outside Brisbane's Lady Cilento Children's Hospital in support of one-year-old baby Asha in Brisbane, Australia, February 21, 2016.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop insisted Canberra was already doing a lot, after her Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi had urged other countries in the region to do more.

"Australia is sharing the burden and will be looking to other countries in our region to do similar," she said at the start of a three-day visit to Indonesia.

She added that Canberra took a "significant number" under the refugee humanitarian visa and had committed to taking thousands of Syrian refugees.

Bishop also said that she expected Indonesia would be asking all countries to solve what is a "regional problem", and not just point to Australia, when Marsudi co-chairs an upcoming people-smuggling conference in Bali.

Bishop and Marsudi will chair the Bali Process, a regional forum set up to tackle people-smuggling, on the resort island on Wednesday. They held private talks on Monday.

"Of course there is hope from Indonesia not only to Australia but to every country to be more receptive to these migrants who have been waiting for resettlement," Marsudi had said in a weekend interview with Fairfax media.

Indonesia is a not a party to the UN refugee convention, which means it is under no obligation to protect refugees, unlike Australia.

Ties between Indonesia and Australia have been strained in recent years by Canberra's immigration policies, allegations of espionage, and Jakarta's execution last year of Australian drug traffickers.

But the relationship has improved in recent times, particularly since Malcolm Turnbull took over in September as Australian prime minister from conservative predecessor Tony Abbott.