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No 'stepping back' from asylum policy says Australia

The Australian government is standing firm on its policy on asylum seekers, despite tensions with Jakarta, saying arrivals had dropped to their lowest level in almost five years since the policy of turning back boats was adopted

SYDNEY: Australia said Friday that asylum-seeker arrivals had dropped to their lowest level in almost five years and there would be no "stepping back" from its hardline policy, despite tensions with Jakarta.

Canberra's military-run Operation Sovereign Borders policy, which sees asylum-seeker boats turned back when it is safe to do so, has angered Indonesia due to several incursions, despite an official apology.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said that no would-be refugees had arrived in Australia by boat for 36 days -- the longest stretch without a vessel in almost five years.

"This is the longest period of no illegal boat arrivals since March of 2009," Morrison said in a statement.

Under new Prime Minister Tony Abbott's punitive anti people-smuggling policy, asylum-seekers arriving by boat are sent to Pacific island camps for processing with no chance of settlement in Australia.

Boats can also be turned back if intercepted at sea.

Morrison said in the first 100 days of the operation, arrivals by boat had dropped by more than 80 per cent.

"While these results were pleasing, arrivals of around 300 per month do not constitute success," Morrison said.

"Being able to sustain a zero rate of arrivals for more than five weeks takes us further, but these outcomes need to be sustained.

"This is not the time for stepping back, but to maintain the full pressure of our operations on criminal people smugglers, that are clearly getting results."

Asylum-seekers arriving on unauthorised boats in Australia, often via Indonesia, are a sensitive issue for both sides, and Canberra's revelations of several incursions into Indonesian waters has angered in Jakarta.

Indonesia has demanded Australia suspend its maritime asylum-seeker operations until they can be further clarified, and has also pledged to step up navy patrols in its southern maritime borders.

Asked about the situation in Davos, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa described Australia's policy as "quite unhelpful".

"I have said in the past that this can be a slippery slope. That's why we feel that it will be best if we all take stock of where we are just now and ensure that things don't get out of hand," he said in comments reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Morrison said Australia would continue to work with "any and all partners, especially within our region to defeat the people smugglers and to continue to keep them informed of our own efforts and activities".

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