The Indonesian elephant in the room

By Andrew L. Urban

Democracies have a non-negotiable obligation to formulate public policies that safeguard the population, including those who seek asylum within its borders.

The asylum seeker elephant in the ‘Australia’ room is Indonesia. It’s the elephant in the room because it is never discussed, neither by politicians nor by commentators. It is not even mentioned in debates about asylum seeker policies, certainly not on any current affairs platform I have seen or heard and I follow this topic closely. And it shouldn’t be possible to avoid hearing something of this in the loud and extensive public debate.

In a heated discussion on ABC TV’s Q&A on Monday June 6, 2011, for example, by which time every Gillard Government proposal on the management of refugee arrivals by boat from Indonesia from East Timor to Malaysia had been roundly condemned, not a single panel member, nor a single audience member asked what is perhaps the most obvious question. What is Indonesia’s position on a processing centre on its own shores?

The Government’s oft-repeated mantra for a ‘regional processing centre’ has ignored the one location, the obvious regional territory, which has the most advantages.

The thousands of refugees who end up in boats heading for Australia arrive (via other countries) in Indonesia. That’s their point of departure, with the help of people smugglers. To stop the deadly and exploitative smuggling trade it would seem logical to set up that much talked about regional processing centre right there, in Indonesia. That would certainly put an immediate end to the people smuggling trade, and it would also provide a controlled processing system for asylum seekers who arrive in that country en route to Australia. It would be the (near) equivalent of the processing system at other refugee camps from where Australia accepts asylum seekers.

When I raised this in emails with both Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Immigration Minister Craig Morrison (August 29, 2010), the response was that Indonesia wouldn’t agree to it, on the grounds that it would attract even more refugees. Morrison wrote: “The Indonesians do not support the type of facility you have suggested. Australia did have a facility in Indonesia on the Island of Galang, established by the Fraser Government. The Indonesians are concerned such a facility would encourage even more asylum seekers into the region…”

This is mere conjecture, but even if that were the case, the processing could be so designed as to accommodate refugees in processing centres run by Australia.

What sort of trading partner, indeed, what sort of regional friend, is Indonesia if it refuses a reasonable request from Australia, to establish a well structured and efficient processing centre – entirely at Australia’s cost, even though it is not entirely Australia’s problem.

There are other humanitarian gains to be had from such an approach, namely the possibility of some amelioration in the treatment of refugees already in the Indonesian system. As Tim Lindsey [1] points out:

Indonesia’s refugee facilities are notoriously bad for asylum-seekers who do not have the means to buy themselves better accommodation. Some detention centres are former hotels (Mares, 2001b) but in the worst cases those without means (Roberts, 2001:28) are confined to 2 x 2 metre cells where they are fed a subsistence diet of rice and vegetables and are denied is no access to reading materials or other activities. For those with means, however, it is possible to arrange reduced periods of detention or even access outside. Likewise, of asylum-seekers who are detained, those with money frequently escape. At present Indonesian estimates place missing refugees from detention camps at least 30 per cent.3 There is no mystery about where the missing refugees are headed. Because Indonesian detention conditions are so bad, because refugee status in Indonesia is largely meaningless; and because time can stretch more or less indefinitely in detention there is little reason for asylum-seekers not to take the risk of an illegal boat ride to Australia (SBS, 2001d).

While Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has already (May 25, 2011) ruled out a refugee swap deal along the lines proposed to Malaysia, there has been no high level (or even low level) discussion about an Australian-run processing centre (or centres) in Indonesia.

It is the urgent challenge for Australia’s diplomatic skills at the highest level: the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Immigration Minister should be meeting with Indonesia’s President and relevant Indonesian Ministers to discuss Indonesia’s reservations and develop strategies to overcome them.

The question of Indonesia not being a signatory to the rather outdated 1951 UN Convention on Refugees is really a red herring as the plans to send asylum seekers to Malaysia proves. Oversight by Australia and by the UN is essential there too, as well as it would be in Indonesia.

There is another issue at stake: if the flow of refugees from Indonesia were suddenly stopped (ie, the boats were indeed stopped or reduced) what would be the fate of those seeking asylum who were already in or on their way to Indonesia? An Australian processing centre would be the best way to manage those refugees.

If Australia feels able to engage other countries in the region, it should not be beyond the imagination and diplomacy of engaging Indonesia to develop an agreement under which this centre could operate – safely and in line with Australia’s human rights obligations.


[1] Tim Lindsey is Associate Professor and Director, Asian Law Centre, The University of Melbourne. His paper in full:

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