Australian border patrol ships will be able to enter Indonesian waters without seeking permission under a new pact following a series of refugee boat accidents, Jakarta’s defense minister said Wednesday.
The agreement, which minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro expects to be signed off between the two governments by September, would allow Australian authorities free passage into Indonesia’s maritime search and rescue zone.
Jakarta is responsible for a large swathe of the treacherous waters between Java and Australia’s Christmas Island, but their capabilities are far inferior to their neighbors’ and Australian assets are often drafted in.
Several refugee boats have sunk in the area recently, killing hundreds, and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her Indonesian counterpart Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have pledged closer links on the issue.
Purnomo said there were now “many illegal immigrants coming especially to Christmas Island”, an Australian territory 2,600 kilometers (1,612 miles) from its mainland and the primary destination for Indonesian people-smuggling ships.
“They are sending distress signals asking for assistance, so Australia’s asking us when their patrol boats can enter our waters — what are the rules that apply, rules of engagement?” Purnomo told ABC radio.
He said Australian boats were already entering Indonesia without permission “but actually they’re doing it without rules protecting them”.
“They worry that our radar will be catching them, either the air defense system or the maritime radar,” he said.
To combat the problem Purnomo said the two countries were drafting a new pact to allow Australian authorities to enter the Indonesian search and rescue zone without permission, in a bid to hasten the vital first response.
“It’s not a joint patrol because we’ve been doing that already… this one is to let them enter our waters,” he said.
Under the deal, Australian planes will also be able to scan Indonesian waters from the skies.
Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan, acting as leader while Gillard is on leave, declined to comment, saying only that “these are matters that will be outlined” when talks had concluded.
There have been 102 people-smuggling boats arriving in Australia this year carrying a record 6,944 people, amid a political impasse over refugee policy which has seen growing numbers of asylum seekers freed into the community.