Updated: 01/08/2014 08:48 | By Agence France-Presse

Australia to buy lifeboats to return asylum-seekers

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday said "all steps necessary" will be taken to halt boatpeople amid reports that Canberra is planning to buy 16 lifeboats to ferry them back to Indonesia.

Australia to buy lifeboats to return asylum-seekers

Protesters carry placards at a 'Welcome Refugees' rally in Sydney on September 29, 2013

Fairfax Media said the government would purchase boats similar to those carried by cruiseships to be able to get asylum-seekers intercepted at sea back to Indonesia if their own vessels were unseaworthy.

Few details on how the hard-hulled boats would operate were provided, but reports said asylum-seekers would be transferred to them near Indonesian waters, with sufficient fuel and provisions for them to return to that country.

It follows revelations Tuesday that the Australian navy had turned back at least one asylum-seeker boat without first informing Jakarta, prompting fresh anger in Indonesia about Canberra's tough policies on boatpeople. 

It was the first reported instance in which the new Australian government had turned a boat back without Indonesian cooperation, adding to recent tensions between the two countries over a spying row.

Morrison refused to confirm the lifeboat reports, saying people-smugglers had used official commentary to "make dangerous assumptions about our maritime operations, which puts people at risk".

"The government will continue to take all steps necessary to stop the boats consistent with our commitments to the Australian people and to protect safety of life at sea," he said in a statement.

"Since Operation Sovereign Borders began, illegal arrivals by boat have declined by more than 80 percent."

Under the policy, which helped propel Tony Abbott to power, the government has promised to turn back boats when it is safe to do so.

The move has irked Jakarta, which has warned it could breach Indonesian territorial sovereignty, with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa on Tuesday again voicing opposition.

The Labor opposition's acting immigration spokesman, Mark Dreyfus, told ABC radio the government must clearly explain what was happening.

"We are being left to guess what our navy is being asked to do -- that is not acceptable," he said.

"The only justification for this cover-up is a political one where the minister and the prime minister are not wanting to explain to Australians what's going on because that would make clear just how disastrous the impact this has had on our relationship with Indonesia."

The government has adopted a policy of only commenting on asylum-seeker issues once a week or when a serious incident occurs.

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