The tragic sinking of yet another asylum-seeker vessel, this time in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra and with an estimated 150 people on board, has brought into stark relief the issue that will next week bring a trio of Australian ministers to Jakarta.

This immediate aftermath of this boat sinking in the early hours of Wednesday demonstrates why improving arrangements between Indonesia and Australia on boat rescue (labelled “safety of life at sea”) is particularly urgent.

From all accounts, those on the sinking boat made their distress call to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, despite being in Indonesian waters. And while AMSA swiftly relayed the information to its Indonesian counterpart, the National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas), it was a potentially fatal six hours before the search crews headed out to sea.

As a Basarnas official Gagah Prakoso told Fairfax’s Michael Bachelard in unnervingly honest terms:

“We never conduct operations at night time because we don’t have the facilities and because bureaucratically speaking, it’s complicated. The helicopters are not equipped with devices designed for night-time flying. And in order to dispatch boats we normally must get a permit [from the harbour] but the harbour office doesn’t do it at night time.”

Basarnas had little luck finding the survivors — they say they searched the location passed onto them by the Australian authorities and found nothing. So it was a bulk carrier, APL Bahrain, that picked up the first batch of survivors, and the Australian Navy’s HMAS Maitland that picked up a larger group later on Thursday.

The whole grim episode demonstrates the utter inadequacy of the Indonesian authorities when it comes to rescue missions. As a comparatively poor country of 240 million people, Indonesia sees coming to the rescue of foreigners who have risked their lives at sea as a low priority. For its part, Australia has the expertise and the resources, and a political environment that makes rescues a higher priority.

When he visited Jakarta last month ago, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr flagged “maritime co-operation“, but there was little meat on the bones.

And so it is that three Australian ministers — Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare, Transport Minister Anthony Albanese and Defence Minister Stephen Smith — are coming to the Indonesian capital early next week, with safety of life at sea a major agenda item.

The broad terms of the deal the three are seeking has already been outlined. Australia wants to get permission to enter Indonesian waters as necessary when boats are in distress to conduct a rescue operation. No doubt Australian authorities intend to keep their Indonesian counterparts informed of their actions, but the previous process of requiring formal clearance to enter — a time-consuming process when that commodity is at a premium — could be avoided.

The idea seemed to have in-principle support from Indonesian Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro when he spoke on the topic earlier this month. But ever conscious of domestic politics, he was keen to emphasise that the policy would not compromise Indonesian sovereignty.

And there could be the sticking point. Opportunistic politicians may well use the issue to portray Australia as arrogant for seeking military access to foreign waters, and Indonesian ministers who acquiesce to such a deal as unwilling to stand up for the nation’s rights.

Crafting an arrangement that gives Australian rescuers the access they need but preserves Indonesia’s sovereignty will be the challenge for next week.

With large numbers of would-be asylum seekers using Indonesia as a staging post before heading south, the issue is starting to rankle some Indonesians, who see it as a problem in large part of Australia’s making. Stories of groups of foreigners — Afghans and Iraqis, mostly — getting picked up in Java or islands to the south becoming increasingly common.

Some Indonesian military officers have started to take advantage of the fact. While their involvement in the people-smuggling trade has been suspected in the past, some are now trying their hand at unashamed shakedowns of asylum seekers, asking them to hand over cash.

Pacific Solution or not, it seems that the boats will continue coming for a while yet. And so long as they do, a proportion are likely to need rescuing. Developing the most effective approach to those efforts seems a humane measure — but it won’t necessarily be easy.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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