SYDNEY // ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan has labelled as "counterproductive" the controversial policy of the Australian opposition party to turn back asylum-seeker boats, a report said yesterday.
As part of his plan to tackle the growing problem, opposition leader Tony Abbott has said he will instruct the navy to tow back the boats, which mostly travel from Indonesia, if he wins power in elections due next year.
Southeast Asia's top diplomat said he believed much of what Abbott said was rhetoric for a domestic audience but warned Australia's ties to the region could be hurt if he followed through with his threat.
Pitsuwan, who heads the 10-nation grouping, told the Sydney Morning Herald: "It will be counterproductive just to impose certain decisions on the neighbours at the risk of losing many other agendas, many other issues on the international agenda.
"I don't think it's worth it."
Asylum-seekers arriving by boat are a contentious issue in Australia, where many consider those who bypass official refugee channels to make the dangerous journey as "queue jumpers".
More than 12,000 have arrived so far in 2012, with the ruling Labor government now sending them to offshore processing camps in the Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea as a deterrent measure.
Pitsuwan said the issue could only be resolved by a regional approach, not "by divorcing, by turning your back to us".
He suggested much of what Abbott said on the issue was political point-scoring.
"Rhetoric, political rhetoric, you have to take (Abbott's comments) as such," he said.
"I think Southeast Asia or ASEAN is really mature enough to appreciate that some of them are internal rhetoric for internal consumption, for internal political communication."
Abbott is yet to outline details of how his tow-back policy would work in practice but insists it would undermine people-smugglers' business model and deter asylum-seekers from attempting the dangerous voyage.