Boats of Diplomacy: Where to from here for Indonesia and Australia?

By Sayomi Ariyawansa
Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre. DIBP images.

The advent of President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) heralds a renewed interest in the relationship between Australia and Indonesia.

Although Jokowi’s victory over Prabowo Subianto is thought to be favourable to Australian interests, largely due to his temperance in contrast with Subianto’s famed volatility and murky human rights record in East Timor and Papua, Jokowi does not share his predecessor’s proclivity for prioritising Australian-Indonesian relations.

Relations between Indonesia and Australia historically have been largely benign, though peppered with occasional bouts of fractiousness.

Notably, it occurred during the infamous Tampa incident, when the Australian government refused permission to a Norweigan vessel, which had rescued over 400 asylum seekers from a small fishing boat, to enter Australian territorial waters. Then Prime Minister John Howard tried to persuade the Indonesian government to accept and assist the asylum seekers on board. The Australian government argued that it was Indonesia’s responsibility to receive the asylum seekers because Indonesian search and rescue coordinators took initial responsibility for the rescue of the asylum seekers on the fishing boat. Indonesia refused. The Australian government maintained that in the circumstances, there was an onus on Indonesia to accept responsibility for the asylum seekers.

At the time, Yasril Ananta Baharuddin, head of the Indonesian Migration, Defence and Security Commission said:

[A]ccording to our information, it happened in international seas … Then, a Norwegian ship helped them. And now the action that happens is in Australian territory. Why … you have to give this responsibility to Indonesia? I don’t understand why your PM can give a statement like this. It seems to break again our relationship, which is already cooling down.

Most recently– and perhaps most personally affronting to Indonesia – was the revelation that the Australian government had been monitoring the phone calls of then President Susilo Yudhoyono, his wife Kristiani Herawati, and senior Indonesian officials. Despite the initial fracas, the impact of these revelations was smoothed over to a respectable degree.

The fraught issue of people-smuggling and the movement of asylum seekers and other forced migrants across the Asia-Pacific, however, remains dominant in Australian-Indonesian political discourse.

In the lead-up to the election, Jokowi identified the following three key areas of concern to Indonesia: threats to authority of the state, including threats to Indonesian sovereignty; weaknesses in the economy, including development gaps between regions and over-exploitation of natural resources; and finally, the spread of sectarian conflict weakening Indonesia’s national character.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Jokowi has promised a tough approach to Australia’s asylum seeker policy and the prospect of Australian vessels entering Indonesian territorial waters without permission, which has occurred previously on multiple occasions. He has said: “We will give a warning that this is not acceptable … We have international law, you [Australia] must respect international law.” His stance reflects the unpopularity of the Australian government’s turn-back policy in Indonesia and his comments are likely to resound in Indonesian ears, but it is yet to be seen how this will manifest in bilateral relations with Australia.

Nonetheless, the Australian government is well aware of the importance of managing Indonesian-Australian relations with care. Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University notes that Indonesia’s rapid economic growth and strategic potential means:

The balance of wealth and power between Australia and Indonesia is shifting Indonesia’s way … [and in] a more turbulent Asia, the stronger Indonesia becomes – economically and militarily – the more Australia has to fear from it as an adversary … the more Australia can draw hope from Indonesia as an ally.

And, in a reflection of this geo-politic reality, Prime Minister Abbott has been mellifluous about Indonesia and Jokowi, describing Indonesia as “the emerging democratic superpower of Asia” and noting that Australia foreign policy needs “a ‘Jakarta’ focus rather than a ‘Geneva’ one.”

In this context, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s recent announcement sits uneasily. On 18 November 2014, Morrison announced that asylum seekers who registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia after 1 July 2014 will not be eligible for resettlement in Australia. The announcement notes that the Indonesian government has been briefed on the decision.

Morrison states that the Australian government is “taking the sugar off the table”. He asserts that this proposal is to help Indonesia, and is designed to stop people coming to Indonesia. However, there has been no indication that Indonesia was involved in this decision at all.

Moreover, Morrison also announced that Australia would reduce the number of refugees resettled from Indonesia to Australia from 600 to 450 a year. This significantly undercuts the argument that these measures are designed as an attempt to reduce the burden on Indonesia by deterring future arrivals of asylum seekers.

Rather, these measures suggest a more cynical aim: to shift rather than share responsibility for refugees. Morrison couches it in terms of preventing people from “forum shopping” – that is, trying to get to Australia instead of remaining in countries also offering protection which are closer to their place of origin. Morrison fundamentally misconstrues the purpose of the Refugees Convention, which recognises the right of refugees to seek asylum from persecution in other countries and to be afforded the numerous other protections that are also outlined in the Convention. Many countries of transit, like Indonesia – even if they are signatories to the Convention – are unwilling or unable to provide these protections. It is not “forum shopping” to seek asylum in a country like Australia, where he or she could reasonably expect the requisite level of protection.

Australia is effectively telling Indonesia, the Asia-Pacific region and the world that it will not engage with its protection obligations under the Refugees Convention or with a regional solution at all, except where this enables Australia to divest itself of all responsibility.

In a region with patchy accession to the Refugees Convention and to other international human rights instruments, this sets a deeply worrying precedent: that economic prosperity can buy indifference to international obligations, and that being a signatory to the Refugees Convention means quite little in practice.

From a strategic perspective, Australia’s self-interest is stark, and the pretence of burden-sharing and combined efforts to combat people smuggling is laid bare. As Indonesia grows to perhaps one day sweep Australia aside in wealth and influence, this may be something to regret.

Sayomi Ariyawansa is a Melbourne lawyer. She has volunteered with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, interned in the New York Office of Human Rights First and previously worked for the Victorian Department of Justice. 

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