Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Stop the refugees! Australian led call will impact ASEAN region

By Lauren Gumbs

Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison recently announced a new and harsher policy aimed at stopping even more asylum seekers from reaching Australia, but it comes at the cost of setting diminished human rights precedents in the region.

Last year the catchphrase that won Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott the election was the polarising ‘stop the boats’.

Now it has evolved into ‘stop the refugees’.

Under new laws, those who registered for asylum after 1 July 2014 will no longer be eligible for resettlement in Australia.

Australia currently takes 400-600 refugees per year from Indonesia however the intake quota has been reduced to no more than 450.

At this rate it would take more than 6.5 years just to resettle the 3,000 children waiting in Indonesia, 1,000 of whom are unaccompanied minors.

The rationale of the policy is to preclude asylum seekers using Indonesia as a transit point and to concentrate resettlement efforts on those waiting in first contact countries.

The flow of people to Indonesia, and subsequent ‘burden’ on both Indonesia and Australia, would supposedly dry up and discourage people smugglers from trafficking vulnerable people to preferable transit countries for resettlement.

However the policy is hardly humanitarian and is leveled at refouling refugees, not assisting them to find a safe haven.

In an official press release, Minister Morrison was quoted as saying, “the Government does not support asylum seekers travelling illegally to transit countries in search of more favourable resettlement destinations.”

Yet there is no international refugee law that requires an asylum seeker to apply for asylum in a first point country and as it is the UNHCR that determines refugee status, Australia is clearly imposing its own domestic politics on the selection process.

In fact it is unconventional and unheard of in any other country to design a policy that asks asylum seekers to apply from a first contact country as a prerequisite to resettlement in Australia.

Nor do the majority of asylum seekers travel ‘illegally’ to transit countries.

Most enter transit countries with a visa and from there some travel ‘illegally’ to a destination country on a boat.

There are 10,500 UNHCR registered asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia and although Indonesia’s constitution recognises the right to seek asylum, it is not a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Refugees and offers no formal protections or Refugee Determination Process.

This means that in Indonesia asylum seekers have few rights or ways to make money and rely on under-resourced NGOs and a lone UNHCR processing centre in Jakarta that services the entire archipelago.

Minister Morrison said the new policy is designed to reduce the burden on Indonesia, but it predominantly supports Australia’s political interests – to pacify a new and untested government while engaging in covert refoulement.

Indonesia has argued that being responsible for thousands of refugees and dealing with Australia’s unilateral border control activities are the real burden.

By selecting only those refugees for resettlement that are residing in a country close to their home state, Australia is influencing the Refugee Determination Process to conform to its border controls and immigration policy.

In that sense it is not only acting unilaterally, but creating a regional precedent that sees refugees as a ‘burden’ and refoulment as an acceptable convention.

Under a humanitarian policy, if resettlement eligibility was annulled it would make more sense to increase the intake quota and to resettle already processed, ‘legitimate’ refugees.

It is a cruel blow to reduce the quota for those people who have resisted the temptation to jump on an old boat and travel the dangerous journey to Christmas island.

Their reward for doing the right thing see them languishing in the ‘queue’ - in reality an abstract notion to describe a state of perpetual suspension between statehood.

Suaka, the Indonesia Civil Society Network for Refugee Protection, said the new policy puts refugees in increasingly difficult conditions, especially as Indonesia does not have adequate legal guarantees to protect refugees. 

“This policy is clearly contrary to the international obligations of Australia as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and increases the uncertainty of the situation for refugees in transit in Indonesia,” Chair of Suaka, Febionesta, said.

“Australia has breached its commitment to the Regional Cooperation Framework under the Bali Process and ignored the recommendation of its own expert panel on asylum seekers.
“The policy will surely increase the number of those waiting in line for resettlement indefinitely, leaving them frustrated.”

Despite criticism from human rights groups and NGOs, the policy has not registered much interest in the Indonesian media.

The media have been preoccupied with increased fuel prices and new dynamics in domestic politics rather than the implications of another unilateral Australian decision on asylum seekers.

Indonesia might welcome the ‘sugar finally being taken off the table', but it is also concerned about another unilateral move by Australia to deal with a regional issue.

Indonesia should be concerned; even with the halting of boats to Australia, the UNHCR in Indonesia recorded 3,200 new asylum seeker registrations this year, 1,200 of which will never call Australia home.

As Indonesia has asserted time and time again, the situation requires bilateral and multi-lateral co-operation; asylum seekers will continue to flee as long as there is war and conflict and the queue will continue to form on another neighbours’ doorstep.

The Australian Ambassador to Indonesia, Mr Greg Moriarty, was called into the Indonesian Foreign Ministry last Friday and Asia-Pacific Division Director Yuri Thamrin conveyed Indonesia’s strong concern over Australia’s unilateral policy.

The Australian reported that Mr Thamrin called for Australia to return to dealing with asylum-seekers as a regional problem, through the multilateral Bali Process.

In 2011 Australia and Indonesia agreed to a treaty known as the Regional Co-operation Framework or Bali Process which outlines joint co-operation on people smugglers and asylum seekers.

This agreement has at its core, the assumption that both countries will share the burden of responsibility. 

Banning resettlement from Indonesia is contrary to the spirit and purpose of the Bali Process and it will only induce asylum seekers to use Malaysia or other ASEAN states.

If Australia had opened its doors wider it may have been able to encourage Indonesia to get on board and sign onto the refugee protocols, maybe even to open a processing centre so asylum seekers do not need to be intercepted and taken to Nauru or Manus Island to cost Australian taxpayers $1 billion a year or half a million dollars per asylum seeker.

Australia has been very effective in 'stopping the boats'.

Having achieved his electoral promise, Mr Abbott and his immigration minister could have offered help to countries such as Indonesia, by increasing its refugee intake from the current level of 13,750 to say, 20,000.

This would have been a smart political move, but more importantly it would have reinforced the view that those who seek asylum by going through the correct channels (as opposed to jumping on boats) will be treated promptly and humanely.

However instead of being a leader in human rights, and a good neighbour, Australia has taken a hard-line stance when it comes to immigration and by banning resettlement of mostly genuine refugees from Indonesia, undermines the opportunity to work constructively with Indonesia through a framework it already shares.

Lauren Gumbs is Director of Social Media at the Indonesia Institute. She holds a Master in Communications and is studying a Master of Human Rights at Curtin University.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. It is ridiculous that we now penalise those people who have done exactly what we have argued: to go through the formal channels. And so, what do they get? I kick in the head. This government is cold blooded and do not give a stuff about anyone, including Indonesia. What a disgrace.

    Ray Elliott