JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he had frank and constructive discussions on immigration issues with his Indonesian counterpart on Monday during his first trip abroad since taking office, a visit that comes as the death toll continues to climb from the latest boat tragedy involving Australia-bound asylum seekers.
"We are resolved together, united, to tackle this problem and to beat it, on land and at sea and at the borders of our countries," Abbott said after meeting President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. "We are determined to end this scourge, which is not just an affront to our two countries, but which has so often become a humanitarian disaster in the seas between our two countries."
The visit came three days after a boat packed with asylum seekers sank in Indonesian waters, killing at least 36 and leaving dozens more missing.
Abbott also stressed the importance of boosting economic ties between the neighboring countries from the current 14.6 billion Australian dollars ($13.6 billion) a year. He said a new Australian-Indonesia study center would be created at Monash University.
Abbott is accompanied on the two-day trip by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Trade Minister Andrew Robb and 20 senior businesspeople.
Border issues have been a long-standing headache between the two countries.
Indonesia, with its thousands of islands and shortage of maritime resources, is often used as a transit point by asylum seekers desperate to reach Australia's Christmas Island in hopes of starting a better life. Thousands board rickety fishing boats every year to make the often deadly journey, which typically crosses about 340 kilometers (210 miles) of open sea.
Abbott won the Sept. 7 election on the promise that he would stop the asylum seeker boats.
Indonesia has expressed concern over Abbott's "tow-back" plan, which involves the Australian navy intercepting and forcing back Indonesian fishing boats crowded with asylum seekers. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has warned that the move could breach the country's sovereignty.
"I do want to stress publicly as well as privately, bapak president, Australia's total respect for Indonesia's sovereignty, a total respect for Indonesia's territorial integrity," Abbott said, referring respectfully to Yudhoyono in the Indonesian language.
Yudhoyono agreed that the two countries must work closely together to combat the problem.
"The solution is cooperation," he said, adding that specific details would be worked out at another forum between the countries. "Effective, precise and good cooperation."
Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on Monday maintained his government's policy of refusing to say whether any boat had been turned back to Indonesia since the new administration took power on Sept. 18.
"I'm not going to comment on operational issues at sea that compromise current and future operations," Morrison told a weekly news briefing, adding that the new government had not changed how Australia responds to search and rescue emergencies.
On Friday, a boat thought to be carrying more than 100 asylum seekers from the Middle East sank off West Java's Sukabumi district after being hit by high waves. The exact number of people aboard the boat was unknown due to the lack of a manifest.
The search continued Monday for dozens believed missing after 35 survivors were rescued.
Seven more bodies were found late Sunday and Monday, bringing the confirmed death toll to 36, said Capt. Warsono, police chief of Agrabinta in the neighboring district of Cianjur.
Separately, Australian navy boats rescued 80 asylum seekers and crew from two sinking boats last week en route from Indonesia to Australia and handed them over to Indonesian authorities, said Air Marshal Mark Binskin of the Australian military. Four other boats reached Australian waters last week, he said.
Associated Press writer Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.