Asylum seekers and people smuggling have come to dominate the Australia-Indonesia relationship to the point where the issue was at the top of the agenda last week when newly reinstated Prime Minister Kevin Rudd met with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Jakarta has said in the past that it wants Australia to increase its acceptance of refugees coming from Indonesia, although one of Canberra’s main goals is to find a way to prevent people coming in on boats and to encourage Indonesia to improve detention facilities and border control as a buffer to keep them off Australian shores.
Although the majority of asylum seekers to Australia previously arrived by airplane, the numbers who arrive by boat have been increasing, and it is boat people who stir the most controversy. Indonesia lies directly athwart most of the sea lanes used as transit by refugees headed for Australia, particularly Sri Lankans, Rohingyas, Afghans, Somalis and others, who tie up with people smugglers at hubs on Indonesia’s thousands of islands to risk their lives at sea in ramshackle boats.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 9,226 refugees were in Indonesia at the end of February, up 2,000 percent since 2008, although the figure could be much higher, since many are not reported.
There is no easy solution, particularly when Indonesia has neither international treaty obligations nor a clearly defined role when it comes to responsibility for handling asylum seekers at sea. Jakarta doesn’t subscribe to the international Safety of Life at Sea and Search and Rescue Conventions. Instead Australia and Indonesia employ limited bilateral agreements such as the 2004 Arrangement for Coordination of Search and Rescue Services.
In 2009 asylum seekers rescued in Indonesian waters and put on board the Australian vessel Oceanic Viking were subsequently denied access at consecutive ports in Merak and Riau Islands despite the operation of the search and rescue arrangement and an agreement between Rudd and Yudhoyono to allow the Australian ship to dock.
Indonesia has not advertised itself as a transit point. Its facilities and lack of frameworks and guarantees should stand as forceful deterrents, yet after a decade of doing little except increasing border security, asylum seekers still exploit the weak immigration system and the island nation’s porous and poorly patrolled borders to launch perilous boat journeys. The issue was highlighted last week when a sinking boat carrying 80 refugees ran into trouble south of Indonesia.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says that without refugee legislation and procedures in Indonesia, it alone is responsible for protecting and assisting refugees and asylum seekers, in addition to conducting registrations.
The UNHCR is advocating for Indonesia’s accession to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, yet it is highly unlikely that the country will sign on anytime soon, if ever. It hasn’t signed onto or ratified several other international human rights documents. Not only is Jakarta disinclined to lock itself into such agreements, it has focused on other priorities such as managing people internally displaced through frequent natural disasters and civil ethno-religious conflicts.
Even without signing the Refugee Convention, Indonesia could still look toward improving detention and possibly building detention and processing facilities. As Ross Taylor from the Indonesia Institute suggests, Australia is prepared to fund such a detention facility and East Nusa Tenggara is a good spot to start.
The problem is that Indonesia lacks an effective judicial system that can adequately prosecute people smugglers and deal humanely with detainees.
Convincing Yudhoyono is also not the biggest obstacle. It is government officials and regional heads who will oppose transforming Indonesia from unwelcoming transit point into a link in the larger chain of Australia’s immigration system.
Currently, transiting refugees are detained in immigration detention centers in squalid conditions for indeterminate periods without rights or recognition as asylum seekers. A new report published on July 1 from Human Rights Watch says many suffer physical abuse from guards and police. Human Rights Watch reported that refugees are often beaten and occasionally killed, with the country providing little or no accountability and has done little to clean up its detention facilities.
While the country has taken some steps to clean up the situation, the report shows that those steps are nowhere near enough. Indonesia urgently needs a nationwide review of physical abuse in detention. The government needs to put in place procedures to train immigration staff and provide an effective and safe complaint mechanism for detainees.
Considerable amounts of money and resources are being spent on border protection and keeping asylum seekers out, money that would be better spent creating access to apply for refugee status and resettling the most disadvantaged. But if it can’t, safe and humane processing centers in countries that are used as transit points provide reasonable options to stopping people smuggling and housing asylum seekers offshore.
It will take more than a bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia to find a solution, analysts say. Without regional cooperation and support, the issues will continue to be divisive for Australia-Indonesia relations and a humanitarian failure for those seeking asylum.
Kevin Rudd’s visit was an opportunity to create a less polarizing discourse and to adopt a more regionally minded approach in discussions of asylum seekers rather than to keep badgering Indonesia on an issue it doesn’t regard in equal importance as does Australia.
As it stands now, asylum seekers have virtually no rights in Indonesia and are guaranteed a lengthy purgatory in detention. As a transit point, Indonesia is a necessary perdition where taking a boat ride is inevitable.
Whereas 10 years ago Indonesia may not have had the means or motivation to do something about asylum seekers, it now has both by way of a fast-growing economy and greater Asean and international leadership responsibilities. And 10 years ago Australia was engaged in unhelpful megaphone diplomacy that distanced Indonesia from building a relationship of mutual trust and perspective.
It doesn’t seem likely that Indonesia will sign onto international refugee protocols anytime soon, yet expanding the issue into regional discourse and making provisions for processing centers may change Indonesia’s attitude toward remaining a hostile transit point.
Lauren Gumbs is a human rights student at Curtin University in Perth and holds a master’s degree in communications. She resides in East Java.