Australia, Indonesia boost ties to fight smuggling

The leaders of Australia and Indonesia agreed Tuesday to strengthen maritime ties as part of a bid to combat people smuggling, after two boats carrying Australia-bound migrants capsized and left dozens dead in the past two weeks.

The debate over how to cope with the increasing flow of asylum seekers has intensified in Australia since the boat disasters, in which more than 90 people are believed to have been killed. Their boats sank in the Indian Ocean between Indonesia and the Australian territory of Christmas Island, where Australia runs an immigration detention center.

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met in the Northern Territory capital of Darwin to discuss how to handle the politically-charged problem, along with economic and trade issues.

Gillard said Australia would work with Indonesia's maritime search and rescue agency to help strengthen its communication abilities with vessels during sea disasters and would look into an exchange program of search and rescue specialists.

"I welcome the strong cooperation we have with Indonesia on people smuggling, including Indonesia's law enforcement efforts against people smuggling syndicates," Gillard told reporters.

Yudhoyono said he and Gillard had discussed the importance of the Bali Process, an Asia-Pacific body against people smuggling and human trafficking, and noted that Indonesia was also suffering.

"Indonesia is also a victim of acts of illegal people smuggling," he said. "We hope that we can prevent as far as possible acts of people smuggling in our region."

Neither leader took questions from journalists.

Australia is a common destination for boats carrying asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and other poor or war-ravaged countries. Many asylum seekers travel first to Indonesia and then try to complete the journey to Australia aboard rickety, overcrowded fishing boats. The boats generally head for Christmas Island, which is closer to Indonesia than to the Australian mainland.

Both the ruling center-left Labor Party and the conservative opposition believe sending boat arrivals to a third country to have their refugee claims assessed will help curb smuggling attempts. But they disagree on where to send the asylum seekers. Last week, a bill that would have allowed Australia to deport asylum seekers to another country was rejected in the Senate, after scraping through the House of Representatives.