the government will be paying about $1.2 billion extra this financial year as a result of changes to the refugee system.

If asylum seekers are picked up in Indonesia's search-and-rescue zone, they should be returned to that country. Photo: Reuters

THE opposition is demanding to know why the recent spate of boats that sent distress calls when just off the Indonesian coast had not been returned to Indonesia.

Under international law, if asylum seekers are picked up in Indonesia's search-and-rescue zone, they should be returned to that country.

Labor last tried this in October 2009 when the Oceanic Viking, an Australian Customs Service vessel, rescued a boatload of Sri Lankans in the Indonesian zone. Jakarta refused to accept them and a stand-off ensued that strained relations between the two nations.

Since Australian search-and-rescue crews rushed to the aid of two boats in distress last month, one of which capsized killing 90 people, authorities are now suspicious that recent distress calls, made by boats close to Indonesia, were not genuine.

However, they have no option but to go to the aid of the boats. Once aboard, the asylum seekers are ferried to Christmas Island.

The opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, said the government was too scared to take them to Indonesia because it had rendered the relationship ''toxic'' over the Oceanic Viking episode. He maintained that under a Coalition government, the relationship would be sound enough for those rescued in Indonesian waters to be returned to Indonesia.

Yesterday, Mr Morrison, the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, and the opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman, Julie Bishop, met the government panel examining the asylum seeker issue comprising the former defence force chief Angus Houston, the refugee advocate Paris Aristotle, and the former Howard government diplomat and foreign affairs secretary Michael L'Estrange.

Mr Abbott emerged from the meeting determined to make no change to the Coalition's policy.

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