Dozens of asylum seekers whose boat became stranded off Indonesia’s Rote Island are being transferred to immigration authorities, after they were reportedly turned away at sea by Australian authorities, Indonesian officials said.
Rote Island police chief, Hidayat, told Al Jazeera that the asylum seekers said they were trying to reach Australia on a boat that departed from West Java when they were turned away by Australian authorities last week.
Their boat then became stranded off Rote Island, near West Timor, northwest of Australia, where they were rescued by island authorities, he told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.
Hidayat, who goes by just one name, said that the asylum seekers comprised 54 Sri Lankans, 10 Bangladeshis and one person from Myanmar.
Among those rescued were a four-month pregnant woman and three children, he said, adding that the asylum seekers were being transferred to immigration authorities in Kupang on Tuesday. The boat’s captain has been arrested.
A spokesman for the International Organization for Migration told Al Jazeera that its officials were helping Indonesia “to gather information about the nationalities of the people aboard, their journey, intentions and needs”.
The Australian government has a firm policy of stopping asylum seekers from travelling to Australia by boat and has a strong naval presence along its northern coastline.
A spokesman for Australian Immigration and Border Patrol Minister Peter Dutton told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that: “The Australian government does not comment on matters associated with on water operations”.
The government consistently declines to comment about its border patrol operations.
The government’s silence on the latest asylum seeker boat incident was criticised by Australia’s Green opposition party.
“The Abbott government’s heavy handed secrecy continues as Australians find more out from Indonesian authorities than we do our own government,” said Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, the Greens’ immigration spokesperson.
“Australia’s policy of turning back boats continues to put the lives of young children at risk. While Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand have ceased turning boats around, the Australian government continues to shirk its responsibilities in the region, putting lives in peril.”
“The government continues to snub its neighbours’ efforts to save lives of asylum seekers in the Southeast Asian seas by using the Australian navy to turn boats around.”
After Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand provoked outrage last month when they temporarily turned back boats filled with Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott called on governments to remain firm to beat people-smuggling operations.
“Now the Australian government is prepared to turn boats around, we’ve been able to do it safely and effectively and I am not surprised that other countries are now doing likewise,” Abbott said at the time.
Mark Worley, in Doha, and Syarina Hasibuan, in Jakarta, contributed to this story.