JAKARTA - Indonesia's Immigration Chief on Friday said over 500 foreigners were currently detained in Indonesia over illegal fishing as the country sought to step up surveillance at its border.
The crackdown on illegal fishing boats kicked off early this month as part of a move to stem billions of dollars in economic losses.
The Indonesian government has estimated illegal fishing costs the nation around $25 billion a year.
"544 people were accused of illegal fishing and now they are being questioned by the authorities in Tanjung Redeb of Berau (East Kalimantan Province). According to the information we received, all of them are foreigners who live in Malaysia and the Philippines," said Mirza Iskandar, the Director-General of Indonesian Immigration department.
The drive is likely to spark tension with countries in the region, as new President Joko Widodo adopts a more assertive stance on the maritime sector of Southeast Asia's largest economy.
"In the past, it was considered to be a minor violation that could be resolved easily with neighboring countries. If we closed an eye to it, the matter would spiral into a serious problem. That's why we are determined that under the current administration, we will resolve it in an orderly way, and make sure it won't happen in the future," said Iskandar.
Iskandar added Indonesia is cooperating with neighboring countries like Malaysia and Philippines to resolve the issue.
The vast archipelago is also a favorite entry point for asylum seekers hoping to resettle in Australia, but a new decision by Canberra last week could leave the country with thousands of refugees from the Middle East.
Australian government announced last Tuesday (November 19) that asylum seekers who registered with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Indonesia after July 1 would no longer be eligible for resettlement in Australia.
The UNHCR had recorded 10,623 asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia, awaiting resettlement as of April, when about 100 people were registering at its Jakarta office each week.
"We will increase our surveillance on the legal and illegal entry gates to the country, because we believe, under the new Australian immigration law, there will be no new asylum seekers. So at this moment Indonesian immigration is focusing on the people who are already here, on how to accommodate them, to monitor them and persuade them to return to their home country immediately," Iskandar said.
An Indonesian Foreign Minister spokesman said last week that the country would take "necessary measures" if Australia's move sparked a rise in asylum-seekers staying in Indonesia, but did not outline what those would actually be.
Australia and Indonesia resumed intelligence and military cooperation just three months ago after a months-long rift over Australian spying on former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and other top Indonesian officials.
Indonesia aims to launch a new coastguard force in mid-December tasked with preventing piracy and illegal fishing, and safeguarding maritime borders.