CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Indonesia's foreign minister on Thursday criticized Australia's decision to acquire lifeboats that will reportedly be used to send asylum seekers found aboard unseaworthy vessels back to Indonesian ports.
Australian officials on Wednesday confirmed that lifeboats had been acquired as part of a strategy to stop people smugglers from sending asylum seekers to Australian shores in rickety boats, mostly from Indonesian ports. But officials won't say what the lifeboats will be used for.
Australia's tougher stance on asylum seekers has become an irritant in relations with Indonesia.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has previously criticized an Australia policy of turning back asylum seeker boats to Indonesia as a contravention of Indonesian sovereignty.
He told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio on Thursday that providing asylum seekers with boats to reach Indonesian ports was worse.
"It's one thing to turn back the actual boats on which they have been traveling, but (it's) another issue when they have actually been transferred to another boat and are actually ... being told to go in that direction," Natalegawa said.
"This is the kind of slippery slope that we have identified in the past. Where will this lead to?" he added.
Natalegawa declined to say what action his government might take in response.
Fairfax Media newspaper reported last week that 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,
Crews on boats smuggling people often resort to sabotaging engines or sinking their vessels to avoid their ships being turned back to Indonesia by Australian border protection crews.