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Jakarta Passes the Buck on Asylum-Seekers

John Lee

Following his visit to Indonesia on the weekend, Kevin Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a joint communique emphasising a “regional approach” to asylum-seekers and rejecting any “unilateral actions” in an attempt to address the problem. Both leaders then reaffirmed a co-operative regional approach to the issue, including a summit of stakeholder countries later in the year.

The rhetoric of joint action is always seductive. But one should be sceptical about any effective Indonesia-led regional solution succeeding, even if it makes sense for Canberra to continue trying for one.

This is so as the primary strategy of so-called transit countries such as Indonesia in response to the influx of asylum-seekers is to pass the buck to destination countries such as Australia.

The first thing to note when it comes to asylum-seekers entering Australia is that “pull” factors are far more significant than “push” factors. At the most general level, the number of asylum-seekers throughout the world has remained fairly constant during the past decade at 40 million to 42 million, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

If we take the regional case study of Indonesia, asylum-seekers registered with the UNHCR from 2003 to 2008 never exceeded 400 and fell to decade lows in 2004-05.

In 2009, 2010 and 2011, asylum-seekers in Indonesia dramatically jumped to about 3000, 3700 and 3100 respectively. Likewise, the number of unauthorised maritime arrivals from 2002 to 2008 never exceeded 161, before jumping to 2750, 6879 and 4565 in 2009, 2010 and 2011 respectively. This coincided with the unwinding of John Howard’s Pacific Solution by the incoming Labor government.

Diplomatically, and as the most significant transit country for Australian-bound asylum-seekers, Indonesia has played a co-operative game. For example, Canberra and Jakarta became the co-chairs of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime in 2002.

A bilateral treaty was signed in 2006, which mentioned co-operation on transnational crime such as people-smuggling. Jakarta passed specific laws in 2011 declaring people-smuggling to be a crime, with sentences of five to 15 years for people found guilty of such activity.

Jakarta is honest about its poor national capacity when it comes to enforcing these laws and admits that corrupt officials frequently are aiding and abetting the people-smuggling trade. But there is a more fundamental problem. Rather than accepting their share—no matter how small—of the “humanitarian burden” of taking in asylum-seekers, regional countries such as Indonesia adopt policies to ensure they perennially remain transit countries. Despite no ill-intent towards Canberra, Jakarta and other regional capitals effectively pass the responsibility to destination countries such as Australia.

The first thing to note is that countries such as Indonesia do not allow asylum-seekers to claim permanent residence or citizenship, even if they are subsequently found to be genuine refugees. This means that on arriving in Indonesia, asylum-seekers must look elsewhere to build a normal life for themselves and their families.

Moreover, The Philippines is the only Southeast Asian country that is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. This means that non-signatories are not obliged to provide any assistance to asylum-seekers and refugees. In Indonesia there is no national legislation offering substantial rights to refugees when they arrive with respect to their treatment or resettlement.

If asylum-seekers arrive and previously have applied for asylum-seeker status with the UNHCR chapter in their country, they are permitted entry into the country to wait their turn in the resettlement process.

Even then, they are generally banned from working in the formal economy and must abide by strict conditions or else be sent to detention camps with extremely poor conditions.

Bodies such as the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration take the lead in (and bear much of the expense for) supporting asylum-seekers and refugees. If people arriving do not have documentation confirming their UNHCR-attested asylum-seeker status, they are likely to be sent straight to a detention centre.

Indonesia does offer some support to asylum-seekers when it comes to the resettlement process. But the point is that Jakarta’s efforts, and its laws and policies, are almost wholly aimed towards discouraging asylum-seekers from staying, and resettling refugees in other countries such as Australia – creating fertile markets for the people-smuggling trade.

When it comes to people-smuggling, Jakarta insists that any boats that leave its shores are Australia’s problem, even if the boats are closer to Indonesian waters and people-smuggling is now officially a crime in its statutes.

There can be no doubt developing countries such as Indonesia have pressing domestic concerns and are in a poor position to absorb large numbers of refugees.

It is also critical that boat arrivals do not become the issue dominating discussions between Australia and Indonesia, as there are more important discussions on other matters to be had.

But Indonesia needs to accept that there are good reasons for Australia to “unilaterally” reduce the pull factors—not least the moral imperatives to prevent further deaths at sea and to increase our refugee intake from applicants who have been waiting in regional camps (for example, Thailand) for years and even decades.

Besides, any regional solution to people-smuggling can work only if countries such as Indonesia accept that they too take “unilateral actions” that ultimately affect the interests of other countries.

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