More "asylum" boats likely to head for Australia after Indonesian visa change

They're putting the heat on Australia to fix its own problems

The head of immigration with Indonesia's Law and Human Rights Ministry concedes that plans to ease visa rules for three major source countries for asylum seekers heading to Australia could spark more people-smuggling activity.

Indonesia is set to relax visa restrictions on citizens from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh within months, and similar changes for Pakistan and Afghanistan are now awaiting final approval.

The changes come despite the four countries being among 13 nations that for a long time have been on Indonesia's immigration "red list", a reference to concerns that citizens from those countries could pose a security risk. Both the Law and Human Rights Ministry and the Foreign Ministry have confirmed the visa rules are set to be eased for the four countries.

The director-general of immigration with the Law and Human Rights Ministry, Bambang Irawan, has also conceded that the new policy could trigger a fresh wave of asylum-seeker traffic to Australia from Indonesia.

Indonesia is the chief transit point for asylum seekers heading to Australia, while Afghanistan and Pakistan are regarded as major source countries.

"There's the potential for the new policy to lure more boat people heading to Australia," Irawan said in an interview published in the Jakarta Post newspaper on Tuesday. "We will see what the progress is in the future and evaluate."

The visa applications would be processed in Indonesian embassies in the countries of origin. "Based on our data, they head to Australia. To get there they have to pass our country," Irawan said.

However, he maintained that security factors would be taken into account, insisting also that Indonesia remained committed to a regional approach to combating people smuggling and the flow of asylum seekers.

"This is a regional issue that will need co-operation between the transit and destination countries eyed by the people smugglers," he said. Irawan said Indonesia already had "sufficient regulations" to combat people smuggling.

The move to relax the visa policy follows the sinking last month of an Australian-bound vessel off the coast of East Java, which resulted in the deaths of as many as 200 asylum seekers.

Authorities in Indonesia have detained four soldiers for their alleged involvement in the doomed people-smuggling venture, which is believed to have netted the syndicate responsible more than $A1 million.

Only 47 asylum seekers survived when the 25-metre vessel, carrying about 250 people, sank in rough seas 40 nautical miles off the coast. It had a safe capacity of 100. Most of those aboard the boat were from Afghanistan and Iran, but there were also a number of asylum seekers from Pakistan.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa dismissed concerns that the relaxed rules could pose an increased security risk, saying the new policy was aimed at increasing tourism and business links between Indonesia and the four countries. "It's not right for us to stereotype as if a whole country, including children, is dubbed as a terrorist nation," Dr Natalegawa said. "I'm not going to begin stereotyping my brothers and sisters in Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan as if they are all terrorists." he said.


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