CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The government refused to comment on a newspaper report on Wednesday that Australia is buying lifeboats to carry asylum seekers back to Indonesian islands.
Australia was buying 16 engine-powered and enclosed lifeboats — similar to those carried by cruise ships and oil tankers — for border protection boats to carry as an alternative to rescuing asylum seekers found in unseaworthy vessels, Fairfax Media newspaper reported.
Crews on boats smuggling people have resorted to sabotaging engines or sinking their vessels to avoid their ships being turned back to Indonesia by Australian border protection crews.
By putting asylum seekers into safe lifeboats and sending them back to Indonesian islands, Australia is likely to risk further angering Indonesia, which opposes the government's policy of turning back boats full of asylum seekers.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison refused to comment, saying his government does not confirm or comment on such reports.
"The government's policy of no public comment on operational matters is based on the advice of (the) border protection agency and operational leaders to protect the security of our operations and to ensure that they can be conducted with maximum safety and effectiveness for all involved," Morrison said in a statement.
"The government will continue to take all steps necessary to stop the boats consistent with our commitments to the Australian people and to protect safety of life at sea," he said.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative party won national elections in September with a promise to turn boats carrying asylum seekers back to Indonesia, which angered the Indonesian government.
The number of would-be refugee from countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka reaching Australia aboard rickety Indonesian fishing boats has exploded in recent years and has become a hot-button political issue.
But the government has refused to detail how that military-enforced policy had been put into place since it won power.
Morrison on Tuesday refused to comment on Indonesian and Australian media reports that the Australian navy had turned back at least one asylum seeker boat in recent weeks. The asylum seekers were reportedly left stranded on Rote Island, near West Timor.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa also refused to comment on the specifics when asked about the reports on Tuesday, but reiterated his government's objection to Australia turning foreigners back to Indonesia.
"Such a policy is not conducive to a comprehensive solution to the issue," Natalegawa said.
Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.