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Megawati berates selfish nations

CNN's Marianne Bray in Bali

NUSA DUA, Indonesia -- Indonesia's president has opened the world's biggest people-smuggling meet with a veiled attack on countries she accuses of acting in their own interests.

Speaking to delegates from 53 nations on the resort island of Bali, who have gathered in a bid to find ways of cracking down on this deadly and lucrative trade, Megawati Sukarnoputri, warned of "impatient governments taking unilateral steps to protect their national interests".

While organizers of the regional meet have downplayed the president's diplomatic swipe, saying it was not "referring to any specific country but to a phenomenon," the human trafficking topic is undeniably a flashpoint for Asia.

The vast archipelago of Indonesia has become a stepping-stone for thousands of asylum seekers making their way from the Middle East and Central Asia to Australia on a well-established route used by people smugglers.

Since the MV Tampa freighter standoff in August last year, Canberra has turned away all boats it suspects of carrying illegal human cargo, sparking tension with some of its neighbors, particularly Indonesia, who refuses to take them back. Asia
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Australia's tide of refugees 

This has left boat people, which Australia says are all smuggled, in limbo. Canberra has come up with what is called the "Pacific Solution," brokering deals with Pacific Island nations such as Nauru for processing the migrants.

But it has not resolved the problem of where these asylum seekers should eventually go and what should be done in Asia and around the world to crack down on the burgeoning trade of smuggling, which has now become the number two crime priority behind narcotics, according to Interpol officials.

Co-host to the smuggling conference, Australia, said on Wednesday that Indonesian officials they spoke to had made it clear Megawati's warning was not targeted at their contentious stance of intercepting boats filled with boat people.

"We are confident that the comments were not directed to Australia," says Matt Francis, spokesperson for the Australian Foreign Ministry.

The hard-hitting words could very well be targeted towards another neighbor, Malaysia.

Jakarta has been upset by Malaysian plans to expel thousands of migrant workers back to Indonesia following violent incidents there.

Malaysia too is an easy entry point for asylum seekers, as Muslims are allowed to enter the South East nation without a visa.

Regardless of which country Megawati's warning was directed to, it could signal that Indonesia is not going to tolerate other nations telling it what to do.

"There is no justification for one country to impose its will as it wishes," she said.

Indonesia has become a hub for the business for smuggling and does not have a law to punish people smugglers. It has also been accused of having corrupt officials.

Growing tide

The two-day, closed-door Bali meet, which is also looking at transnational crime and the threat of terrorism, comes amid concern among Asian countries that the tide of asylum seekers is growing exponentially.

The number of mainly Afghan and Middle Eastern boat people landing on Australian shores has risen to nearly 5,000 a year from just a few hundred.

They pay thousands of dollars to gangsters and often end up on floating deathtraps.

Last October, 354 people drowned when an overloaded boat bound for the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island broke up off the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Indonesia too is struggling with the tide of illegal migrants landing on its islands, estimating that around 4,000 are in the country, many of them smuggled in by syndicates.

"Not only does the presence (of refugees) put some burden on the shoulders of (our) government, currently so occupied in tackling many domestic problems, but it also creates new problems with our local community," Megawati said.

Beset by economic woes, Indonesia has its own migrant problems, and is trying to deal with around 1.3 million displaced persons.

'Fastest growing business'

Instead of countries acting on their own, Indonesia's president on Wednesday urged "multilateral or at least regional" steps to battle human trafficking.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates as many as two million women and children are trafficked around the world each year, in a dirty business worth $10 billion.

Smuggling within Asia makes up much of that, with U.S. State Department figures showing 225,000 victims a year come from Southeast Asia and over 150,000 from South Asia.

Already, the United Nations has identified people smuggling as the "world's fastest growing criminal business," with links to an underworld of sex and drug crimes.

Source countries, such as Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan are attending the conference, but while Iraq was invited "it has not returned any calls," a conference organizer said.




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