Australian PM says asylum seeker policy tough

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday that no asylum seeker had reached Australia by boat in 50 days, the longest period since 2008, describing the measures to turn them back as tough but effective.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported that the Australian navy sent 34 asylum seekers from Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal who attempted to reach Australia aboard a rickety Indonesian boat back to the main Indonesian island of Java on Wednesday night in a lifeboat.

The government maintained its policy of refusing to say whether it had ever turned back asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat. Abbott has likened Australia's operations against people smuggling to a war footing, and border policing activities are shrouded in unprecedented secrecy.

"I'm pleased that we've now had 50 days without an illegal boat arriving in Australia, and the message is getting out loud and clear to the people smugglers and their would-be customers that the way is shut ... you will not pass," Abbott said.

"Yes, they're tough policies, but they're working," he added, without detailing those policies.

In other changes under the new government, Australia is refusing to permanently resettle genuine refugees who arrive by boat and will not allow their relatives to come to Australia under family reunion schemes open to other refugees.

Indonesian government officials oppose Australia's policies introduced after the government was elected in September last year as an abuse of Indonesian territorial sovereignty.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has described the Australian navy providing the lifeboats to transport foreigners to Indonesian shore as potentially worse.

"This kind of policy of transferring people from one boat to another and then directing them back to Indonesia is not really helpful," Natalegawa told the ABC, referring to the latest lifeboat arrival.

Australian officials last month confirmed that lifeboats had been acquired as part of a strategy to stop asylum seekers, but refused to say how the lifeboats were to be used.

Fairfax Media has reported that Australia was buying 16 engine-powered and enclosed lifeboats — similar to those carried by cruise ships and oil tankers — for border protection boats to carry as an alternative to rescuing asylum seekers found in unseaworthy vessels.

Crews on boats smuggling people often resort to sabotaging engines or sinking their vessels to avoid their ships being turned back.