A Call on Australia for Asylum-Seekers’ Human Rights

Indonesian leaders and rights groups have criticized Australia’s policy on asylum-seekers, citing its disregard for human rights and ineffective unilateral approach ahead of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono today.

“I, for one, would like to focus more on the humanitarian dimension,” Dewi Fortuna Anwar, the deputy of political affairs for Vice President Boediono, told the Jakarta Globe.

“Just saying that we are going to put a fortress around Australia, and say that it’s just Indonesia’s problem is not going to be helpful,” said Dewi, who outlined Australia’s hard-line approach as “callous” especially when, compared to Indonesia, it has the capacity to host more migrants.

Abbott’s first official visit to Indonesia as prime minister comes as yet another Australia-bound boat, carrying Middle Eastern asylum-seekers, tragically sank off the coast of West Java on Friday. At least 28 people, many of them women and children, drowned.

After being elected as Australia’s new prime minister earlier this month, Abbott made it clear that he would honor his commitment to implement Operation Sovereign Borders — which sees a boost in border security. Under the $10 million joint task force, the Australian Navy will turn asylum-seeker boats back to Indonesia when it is deemed safe. The Australian government will also pay Indonesians to act as informants on people-smuggling operations.

“The Australian government needs to be careful that one does not infringe territorial integrity,” said Dewi, adding that it would be “totally unacceptable” for an Australian vessel to enter Indonesia’s sovereign territory without permission.

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The Jakarta Globe’s cover from Monday, Oct. 1.

“What we have to avoid is low-level conflicts because political leaders can make statements, but if it is translated at the technical level into something that is quite dangerous — for example, naval ships getting into skirmishes — that would be very dangerous.”

A lack of protection

“Indonesia is doing everything it can,” said Atika Yuanita, a public interest lawyer at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH), one of the few nongovernmental organizations providing support and advice to Indonesia’s growing refugee community.

“We have no control over Australia’s asylum-seeker policy, so what can we do?” she asked, emphasizing the group’s priority to provide the refugees and asylum-seekers residing in Indonesia with access to basic human rights.

To date Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention and therefore lacks the legal framework needed to provide these people with the most basic human rights and does not recognize them as having any legal right to be in the country.

Additionally, asylum-seekers and refugees cannot legally work or move freely around Indonesia and children have few prospects for gaining an education.

This legal void has also resulted in grave human rights abuses endured by a group of already vulnerable and traumatized people.

In June, Human Rights Watch released a report titled “Barely Surviving: Detention, Abuse, Neglect of Migrant Children in Indonesia,” which details Indonesia’s poor treatment of migrant and asylum-seeking children — many of whom are orphaned. Both adults and children surveyed for the report described guards kicking, punching, and slapping them or other detainees.

“Unfortunately, many people in Indonesia complain that the government cannot prioritize asylum-seekers here when many of our own people do not have access to basic human needs,” Atika said of the archipelagic nation, home to a population of almost 250 million and where an estimated 12 percent of people still live below the poverty line.

Shifting responsibility

When asked by the Globe whether he was hopeful for a proactive outcome in today’s discussion between Yudhoyono and Abbott, Paul Power, chief executive of Sydney-based Refugee Council of Australia, was pessimistic.

“There is a contrast between what we can hope for and what we can reasonably expect,” Power said in a telephone interview, adding that “we are seeing a greater militarization on what is significantly a humanitarian issue.”

According to the refugee advocate, the situation will only manifest until the region properly understands the motivations of asylum-seekers going by boat to Australia.

“As one of the wealthiest countries in the world and a country with a significant annual migration program, the idea that Australia can attempt to completely turn its back on asylum-seekers is viewed very dimly by many countries all around the world,” Power continued.

Australia has long experienced intense political debate over the arrival of asylum-seekers by boat. It’s an issue that has polarized the nation’s voters and dominated the recent federal election campaign.

It’s estimated around 400 boats carrying asylum-seekers arrived in Australia in the past 12 months. About 45,000 asylum-seekers have arrived since late 2007, as a result of seemingly relaxed border policies by the Labor government at the time. This policy led to a voter backlash and the re-implementation of new policies in which boat arrivals are sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

“There are millions of Australians who are very uncomfortable with the direction that our government has taken and there are many people, as the recent national elections approached, who felt they had nowhere to turn when both major parties where pushing hard-line policies in relation to asylum seekers,” Power explained.

“I think very much a valid question for Indonesia to ask of Australia is what it plans to do to support the neighboring countries it is shifting the responsibility to … the difference in economic capacity between the countries is enormous.”

A dangerous precedent

In the wake of Friday’s tragedy, HRW responded with a statement urging the Australian prime minister to prioritize human rights issues in today’s meeting with Yudhoyono.

“Prime Minister Abbott should use his first foreign trip as head of state to put human rights at the heart of Australia’s foreign policy,” said Elaine Pearson, HRW’s Australia director. “He should engage with Indonesian President Yudhoyono so that Australia can help improve, not impede, respect for human rights in Indonesia.”

As a signatory to the United Nations’ 1951 refugee convention Australia has international obligations to protect the human rights of all asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in Australia, regardless of how or where they arrive and whether they arrive without a visa.

But Andreas Harsono, the head researcher for HRW Indonesia, says Australia’s current policies contradict its obligations under the UN treaty. “The Australian government is taking a step which I think is quite dangerous,” he said.

Andreas acknowledged the concern within Australia on the increasing numbers of refugees wanting to seek asylum within the country. However, he said that the nation has no choice but to abide by the refugee convention.

At the very least, Andreas said Australia could pose as a second transit country in order to take the pressure off Indonesia and ensure that basic human rights are met in the interim.

At a time when Australia has just assumed the Presidency of the UN Security Council, a position that calls for the nation’s leadership on the world stage, its disregard toward its obligations “sends a very dangerous message to other countries that respecting human rights is optional,” said Daniel Webb, the director of legal advocacy at the Australian based Human Rights Law Centre.

“Some Australian politicians label asylum-seekers on boats as ‘illegals,’ but it’s actually Australia’s treatment of them that breaks the law,” said Webb, who is part of HRLC’s team that has issued a statement to the current session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva expressing deep concern about Australia’s “unlawful” and “increasingly punitive treatment” of people seeking its protection.

The advocacy group is hopeful that member states of the council will urge Australia to reconsider its self proclaimed “single-minded focus on deterrence” as well as plans to drastically cut its humanitarian intake. Upon becoming prime minister, Abbott announced his plan to reduce Australia’s humanitarian intake by 6,250 places a year to 13,750.

“Ensuring refugees get the protection they need is a regional challenge,” said Webb. “It requires collaborative efforts to develop safe protection pathways, not unilateral efforts to close existing ones.”

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