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We talk with Indonesia every day -- but is anyone listening?

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop "insists" that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is "very positive". But Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa is equally insistent that there is a serious problem with the relationship. If there is regular dialogue between Australia and Indonesia, as Bishop claims, it would seem it is being conducted at cross purposes.
Bishop says the two countries talk officially almost every day, but that does not seem to have thawed relations. They were talking when the Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Greg Moriarty, was again called in for a "please explain" over Australia’s asylum seeker "life boat" policy.
But what Bishop is not saying is that these conversations amount to a one-way rebuke. The most recent of these negative statements is that Natalegawa will raise the "escalated" issue of Australia returning asylum seekers to Indonesia in Australian-supplied life boats with United States Secretary of State John Kerry.
The US is a partner in the Bali Process, established in 2002 as a regional response to people smuggling. The Bali Process includes as members those countries that are the principle source of Australia’s asylum seekers, as well as those countries they are transiting through.
However, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he is relaxed about this, no doubt because the US is unlikely to want to become embroiled in a regional spat between allies. But it does, again, indicate the depth of Indonesia’s concern over asylum seekers traveling from international waters back to Indonesia on Australian government-supplied boats.
There is no doubt that the Indonesian response to returning asylum seekers to Indonesia is, to some degree, playing to a domestic audience ahead of forthcoming elections. As with all countries, Indonesian foreign policy primarily projects domestic priorities. This does not, however, diminish the extent to which government mishandling of domestic concerns may wreck foreign relations.
Perhaps more so than most other countries, given its fractured geography, Indonesia has always been deeply sensitive about foreign powers impinging on its territorial sovereignty. Coming on the back of inadequately dealing with phone-tapping revelations -- exacerbated by fresh reports that Australia’s phone tapping was much more extensive than first reported -- and then Australian naval vessels entering Indonesian territory, putting asylum seekers on Australian government boats and sending them back to Indonesia now has Indonesia searching for possible responses short of expelling Australian embassy staff.
What Indonesia wants -- and what the Bali Process was established to deliver -- is a regionally co-ordinated approach to the asylum seeker issue. In short, Indonesia wants Australia to work collaboratively to stem the tide of asylum seekers, for those who do reach the region to be quickly and appropriately processed, and for Australia to accept greater regional responsibility.
That Indonesia wants to keep the Bali Process on track is part of the "very positive" conversation with Australia -- and it is falling on deaf ears. Ahead of a change of government in Indonesia and thus charting less certain diplomatic territory, Australia is likely to remain similarly blind to the damage this issue is causing to the long-term bilateral relationship.

Australia's big asylum seeker policy hole

Australia and Indonesia have worked hard over the past decade to build a strong bilateral relationship, seen as valuable by Indonesia and as critically important by Australia. That relationship is now in tatters.

The Australian government has been at pains to explain to Indonesia that recent naval incursions into Indonesian territorial waters, intended to stop asylum seeker boats, were unintentional. From Indonesia’s perspective, it matters little whether the incursions were intentional or just the logical if unintended consequence of a much disliked Australian government policy.

Similarly, Australia’s policy of giving asylum seekers lifeboats to return to Indonesia adds a further layer of complication to Australian policy. From Indonesia’s perspective, the flow of asylum seekers is not official Indonesian policy, but the Australian navy putting asylum seekers bound for Australia in Australian lifeboats bond for Indonesia is official Australian policy.

This policy is seen by Indonesia as diplomatically clumsy as it is objectionable. Indonesia has said, repeatedly, that it wants Australia to abandon its policy of turning back asylum seeker boats. Putting asylum seekers in lifeboats only heightens those objections.

Indonesia has now launched its own naval patrols, not to stop asylum seekers leaving Indonesia but to stop Australian naval incursions. Australian naval vessels will no doubt be extra cautious about future transgressions into Indonesian territorial waters and, beyond that, there are a series of warnings to go through before confrontation.

At best, however, the bilateral relationship is continuing to deteriorate. At worst, mistakes can happen.

The Australian navy may continue to turn (or tow) asylum seeker boats back to near Indonesian territorial waters. But it will not be able to compel asylum seeker boats to remain within them.

When the monsoonal season ends and the "sailing season" resumes, around April, the flow of asylum seeker boats is again likely to increase. The problem faced by the Australian Navy will, therefore, become more rather than less complicated.

The first question is, then, whether Australia’s defence approach to an immigration issue is sustainable. The second and larger question is whether Australia can continue to alienate, seeming indefinitely, its most important strategic relationship.

If Australia is serious about finding a long-term solution to the asylum seeker issue, it needs to work closely with Indonesia and other regional neighbors to put in place agreed and workable policies. Such policies go beyond the simple, if failed, "policing"" that existed until late last year.

Indonesia, probably Malaysia and possibly Thailand and Singapore need to have in place stricter immigration policies, to screen "onward bound" travellers. There also needs to be regional co-operation around the quicker and internationally recognised processing of those asylum seekers who do end up in the region.

Such a policy would limit the flow of asylum seekers, would meet Australia’s international obligations and would not alienate critically important relationships. However, this would require the type of trust and co-operation that Australia’s existing approach to asylum seekers has effectively ended.

The Australian government’s approach to asylum seekers worked well as a pre-election slogan, but lacked a properly developed plan. As a result, Australia has dug itself into a policy hole.

If Australia now wishes to extricate itself from this situation it must start by following the first rule of holes: when you are in one, stop digging.

What the Australian Prime MInister must do to fix the Indonesian relationship

The current breakdown in diplomatic relations between Australia and Indonesia is close to -- or is -- the worst the relationship has been. There has been nothing of such damage to the relationship since Australia’s intervention in East Timor in 1999, when Australia sent in troops with the permission of the Indonesian government to address a problem resulting from the Indonesian government being at odds with its own military.

Military co-operation, support for Australia’s asylum seeker program and intelligence sharing has now been suspended by Indonesia, and there is not even a fig-leaf of support in Indonesia for Australia. The current spying issue is more damaging than the East Timor intervention, with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono feeling personally betrayed by a country he considered a friend.

The suspension of key bilateral activities has ended Indonesia’s reluctant support for Australia’s asylum seeker policy. It can be safely assumed that Indonesia will not be accepting back any boats for the foreseeable future.

But Indonesia’s response is unlikely to end there. Without an adequate response by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, there is likely to be the suspension of further activity between the two countries. Areas that are likely to be affected include trade arrangements and Indonesia’s support for Australia in regional forums such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including the strategic ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

An element of the current controversy reflects political point-scoring in Indonesia as actors jockey for position ahead of next year’s elections. However, there is also a very real sense of anger and dismay over the spying allegations. Many senior Indonesian figures have never entirely trusted Australia, and this issue has only confirmed their mistrust.

From Australia’s perspective, there has long been a quiet but very real concern that Indonesia’s next president, to be elected in September 2014, will be not nearly as well-disposed towards Australia. It was widely hoped that the strong relationship with Indonesia that existed until recently could be maintained in order to ensure that Australia goes into those uncharted bilateral waters in the best possible shape.

That option has now all but disappeared. Even if this affair can be settled down, there will remain a lingering sense of mistrust from Indonesia.

Australia’s best option at the moment is twofold. Abbott needs to fulsomely apologise to Yudhoyono privately. Yudhoyono might or might not choose to make public some or all of that apology, but that would ultimately be his call to make.

Abbott also needs say publicly that Australia apologises for the hurt and mistrust that has been caused by the allegations of spying, without formally confirming that such spying has or has not taken place. He also needs to say that Australia’s regional intelligence activities will be reviewed with the intent of ensuring that no further offence will be caused to Indonesia. Again, this will not require going into details.

This is what should have happened when the spying scandal first broke two weeks ago. Had this been said then, the current issue would have been nipped in the bud and the fallout would not now exist.

The question for the Australian government now is not whether it acts, but how quickly and precisely how to phrase the public component of the apology to Indonesia. Not to do so risks not just immediate difficulties, but could derail the relationship with Indonesia into the longer-term future.

With Indonesia, the relationship is going from bad to worse

Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is at one of its historic low points, despite claims to the contrary by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. What is unusual about this most recent contretemps with Indonesia, with which Australia has previously had several difficulties, is that, unlike in the past, the current problems are entirely a consequence of Australian policy.

Australia’s alleged spying on Indonesia is both bipartisan and largely necessary. But Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has not yet moved to allay concerns in Jakarta by saying Australia’s intelligence program will be reviewed and offensive activity ceased (even if it will not).

However, the Australian government’s handling of the asylum seeker issue has been purely a matter of domestic political choice. It is an "own goal" that was part of the planning for the game.

That policy is all but in tatters, following Indonesia refusing to readmit 63 asylum seekers bound for Australia. According to Indonesian authorities, this is the third such refusal to accept back asylum seekers; Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has finally acknowledged it was at least the second such rebuff, not having acknowledged previous problems in his less-than-frank weekly briefings on the asylum seeker issue.

Indonesia’s point-blank refusal to accept the asylum seekers on this more public occasion has raised real doubts about whether the government’s policy on turning back asylum seekers can work. If the government cannot turn back boats, as it said it would in opposition, it may now be forced to accept the same, much criticised policy as adopted by the former Labor government.

Indonesia’s Co-ordinating Minister for Legal Political and Security Affairs, Djoko Suyanto, is expected to soon formalise Indonesia’s permanent refusal to accept asylum seekers from Australian rescue vessels, other than in emergency situations. This would appear to end the government’s plan to return asylum seekers "when safe to do so". Indicating Indonesia’s growing frustration with Australia, on Friday, Djoko said:

"The Indonesian government never agreed to such wishes or policies of Australia. This has been conveyed since the time of Kevin Rudd, and there is no change of policy regarding asylum seekers wanting to go to Australia under the current Abbott government."

Following Djoko’s statement, the Australian government backed down on its push to have Indonesia accept the asylum seekers.

Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro added to Indonesia’s public dismay over Australian asylum seeker policy by confirming that Indonesia had never agreed to asylum seekers being returned to Indonesia and that Australia should "send the asylum seekers to their detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea and not to Indonesia".

Anger in Indonesia over Australia’s attempt to return the asylum seekers has further damaged relations already seriously strained over allegations of Australian spying in Indonesia. Indonesia’s presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah has again reconfirmed that spying on Indonesia is "unacceptable".

In response, he said that Indonesia "will take steps that cannot be disclosed to the public". Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has already identified co-operation on people smuggling and terrorism as areas that will be "reviewed".

The government’s closely controlled media management strategy also appears to be coming unstuck over these two issues, with Indonesian authorities either contradicting or providing alternative accounts of matters that the Australian government is only reluctantly revealing.

The issue of Australia spying on Indonesia is far from resolved, and the asylum seeker issue is now front and centre. No doubt, where Indonesia is concerned, the government must be hoping that bilateral policy issues don’t come in threes.

West Papuan activists test waters around Australian asylum rules

West Papuan activists are testing Prime Minister Tony Abbott's statements in relation to his asylum-seeker boat turnback policy, that he has "total respect for Indonesia's sovereignty, total respect for Indonesia's territorial integrity". So far, they are having little luck.

As Abbott was preparing to leave for Bali, three West Papuan activists scaled the wall of the Australian consulate-general in Bali. The activists delivered a letter seeking the release of political prisoners jailed in Indonesia and free access to the long restricted region by the international media.

The letter also said: "We seek refuge and plead for our safety." Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb told the ABC that the men did not seek asylum for themselves, and left voluntarily within hours, and had gone into hiding.

Last week, seven West Papuans travelling by boat from Papua New Guinea to Australia seeking asylum and were returned to PNG. The legality of sending the asylum-seekers back remains in question.

Last month, the pro-West Papuan independence "Freedom Flotilla" met with West Papuan activists off-shore of the island split between the Indonesian republic and PNG. It had been told it would meet force if it tried to land at Indonesia’s most south-easterly port of Merauke.

The upsurge in West Papuan activism follows attempts by the Indonesian government to find a solution to the West Papua problem while at the same time conducting a crackdown in the territory.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s proposal is to create what is referred to as "Special Autonomy Plus", a new take on the "Special Autonomy" status granted to the province of Papua in 2001. Not only has there been little about the "autonomy" that is "special", within two years the province had been divided in two, contravening its new status.

The recent "Plus" proposal is intended to allow the more-or-less democratically elected Papua provincial government to engage more closely with the separatist Free Papua Organisation (OPM). Pro-human rights activists say the provincial government does not have power to conduct negotiations. Further, any benign intentions the provincial government might have are undermined by the Indonesian police and military’s continuing "security" approach to West Papuan activism.

As activists further note, any negotiations need to be with the national, not provincial, government. They also say that such negotiations must be conducted outside Indonesia to ensure the safety of participants, and be internationally mediated to guarantee their outcome.

With less than one year left in Yudhoyono's term as president, his two-term limit ends in September 2014, both sides have now run out of time to have such negotiations ratified by Indonesia’s legislature. But, as Yudhoyono knows, the parliament would in any case be very unlikely to accept such a negotiated settlement.

West Papuan activists therefore believe their only option now is to try to raise the issue internationally. In doing so, however, they have run up against Australia’s well established policy of supporting West Papua’s continued incorporation within Indonesia.

The West Papuan activists have also run up against Australia’s tougher position of supporting Indonesia’s "territorial integrity", hence, their "voluntary" agreement to leave Australia’s consulate-general in Bali, just ahead of the arrival of Indonesian police.

Abbott's first foreign test: pulling policy fat from diplomatic fire

Tony Abbott's first international test as prime minister is also likely to be his toughest, when he meets with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono today. It will be a remarkable feat if he can pull the policy fat from the diplomatic fire.

In the balance lies Australia’s critical relationship with Indonesia. Not only has Abbott’s signature "turn back the boats" policy been comprehensively rejected by the Indonesian government, Indonesia has now fired a real warning shot across Australia’s diplomatic bow.

The "unintentional" release of the notes of the conversation between foreign ministerial counterparts Julie Bishop and Marty Natalegawa late last week was a blunt warning: the issue may blow up further if not resolved quickly.

Abbott’s dismissal of his asylum-seeker boats policy as a "passing irritant" in the wider bilateral relationship with Indonesia will be viewed as arrogant. Arrogance is a quality not much appreciated in Indonesian political society, and especially not from Australian politicians. It is also incorrect to treat it so lightly, given the issue is now central to a complex web of arrangements.

At primary risk is Indonesia’s existing co-operation with Australia against the people-smuggling trade. This then segues into other areas of security co-operation, including on terrorism and wider security issues.

The awkwardness of Abbott's visit has been underscored by the inept intervention by former foreign minister Alexander Downer on Thursday. Downer's status as a former Coalition foreign minister means his "pious rhetoric" comment against Indonesia will be read in Jakarta as informing the Australian perspective.

Asylum-seeker boats leaving Indonesia are a private and, at most, criminal matter. If they do breach Australian sovereignty, it is not a consequence of Indonesian state policy.

By contrast, Australia’s "Operation Sovereign Borders" of sending boats in international waters back to Indonesia is official state policy. On this, Downer blundered and Indonesia holds the high diplomatic ground.

Abbott distancing himself from Downer’s statement will be seen as just as unconvincing as Natalegawa’s claim of the "unintentional release" of notes of his conversation with Bishop. The distinction on issues of sovereignty and official policy can be expected to be brought to Abbott’s attention .

Australia has recently enjoyed a positive relationship with Indonesia, overwhelmingly because of the benign political character of President Yudhoyono. But Natalegawa’s release of the Bishop conversation notes reflects a growing impatience with Australia. If Abbott persists, bilateral relations could quickly collapse to the lows of 1999, when Australia intervened in East Timor.

Indonesia has always been important to Australia, but is increasingly so. Its economy, growing at over 6% a year, is due to overtake Australia’s by 2017, while it is Australia's 13th biggest trading partner (and growing).

Importantly, Indonesia is Australia's pivot into ASEAN, including the security-focused ASEAN Regional Forum, as well as a key partner in APEC and wider regional relations. Add to that key sea lanes and air routes, and you have a relationship that Australia cannot afford to get wrong. All of this will be on the table when Abbott and Yudhoyono meet.

The question will be, then, whether Abbott throws overboard his "turning back the boats" policy in favour of greater regional co-operation. The alternative might instead be looking at throwing overboard a large part of the bilateral relationship with our closest neighbour.

Australia playing Sri Lanka's authoritarian game

In the dog-whistle competition between major political parties against asylum seekers and the war on alleged "terrorism", the Australian government has jailed legitimate refugees, without charge, for reasons -- extraordinarily -- we are not allowed to know about. Opposition Senator George Brandis claims refugees who are deemed a "security threat" should be jailed because they entered Australia "illegally", parroting the patently misleading line put by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

The government is more careful, simply saying a group of asylum seekers who have been granted refugee status have been found to be a security threat. Prime Minister Julia Gillard says we should not second-guess ASIO's security assessment of asylum seekers who are found to be genuine refugees but who have had an adverse security assessment:

"They know about things like the conflict in Sri Lanka. They use the best intelligence they can to give us the best advice they can. So any suggestion that these people are just naively ringing up governments around the world and saying 'What do you reckon?' is not fair to those intelligence analysts and you should not create that perception in people's minds."

This admonishment not to ask questions, however, runs contrary to what is known about the way in which the Australian government reached previous determinations on the issue. In terrorism trials against three Sri Lankan Tamil Australians in 2010, the Australian Federal Police relied on evidence provided directly by the Sri Lankan government. That case failed on the grounds that the Tamil Tigers, with which the defendents were allegedly connected, was not actually proscribed as a terrorist organisation in Australia.

While ASIO is not just naively ringing up governments around the world, at least one government is "ringing up" Australian security agencies and providing information. That information, from a government that is under scrutiny for war crimes and continuing human rights violations, has been deeply biased, hence flawed and quite often wrong.

The ASIO finding that some Tamil refugees remain committed to achieving a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka coincides with the Sri Lankan government's own assessment of their continuing, and self-serving, threat to that state. The Tamil Tigers were destroyed in 2009, along with the deaths of some 40,000 civilians, and they no longer exist.

But in Sri Lanka, Tamils are still persecuted and "disappeared", Tamil women are r-ped, and even non-Tamil Sri Lankans are increasingly living under the Rajapaksa government's jackboot. Journalists are targeted for assassination, the high court has been emasculated, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa has removed restraints on his personalised rule.

But, having fled this environment in fear of their lives, as found by the Refugee Tribunal, former combatants or or pro-independence sympathisers are now being jailed, under secret terms that, on the face of it, fit neatly with Sri Lanka’s authoritarian regime.

Tamils pay the cost of political expediency

At a time of bipartisan support for renewing the Pacific Solution, it is deeply disturbing to see the asylum seeker issue taking a turn for the more extreme. In a world of dog-whistle politics, it appears that further punishing victims is acceptable if it can score domestic political points.

Despite the opposition’s success in the government adopting its Pacific Solution, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop’s call to return Sri Lankan asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without processing their claims reduces policy debate to moral abandonment. Backing her, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has displayed either ignorance or denial of the facts on the ground in Sri Lanka and Australia’s legal obligations.

The ongoing asylum seeker debacle: It will always be about the push factors!

Let’s start with some basic facts. The 1951 Refugee Convention (as broadened by the 1967 Protocol) provides that the term “refugee” shall apply to any person who: 

Dog-whistle politics offends Indonesian ears

Not since Malcolm Fraser was prime minister has the federal Coalition understood, much less had an engaged relationship with, South-East Asia. This lack of understanding and engagement was reflected again yesterday when the Opposition foreign affairs spokesperson, Julie Bishop, made a ‘courtesy call’ on the chair and deputy chair of Indonesia’s legislature (DPR).
What should have been a brief exchange of pleasantries turned into a diplomatic disaster when Ms Bishop outlined the Opposition’s policy on ‘sending back’ asylum seeker boats to Indonesia. Indonesia’s DPR Deputy Chairman, Hajriyanto Thohari, described the policy as unfair on Indonesia and said that Ms Bishop was arrogant in her expression of the policy.

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