As Australia ramps up measures to keep boat people at bay, Indonesian Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro will continue to focus on issues closer to home
By Sacha Passi
Since former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd loosened border protection measures in 2008, approximately 50,000 asylum seekers have arrived in the country and more than 1,100 have drowned en route.
Five years later, during his brief second tenure as Prime Minister, which began in June and ended in September with defeat to Tony Abbott’s Liberal National Coalition in Australia’s general election, Rudd announced a new aid deal had been struck with Papua New Guinea to the tune of $400 million – part of a $1 billion four-year plan to have all asylum seekers sent to and processed on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Within days of the announcement, attention had turned to the third party in the asylum seeker conundrum when a boat carrying nearly 200 people sunk off the coast of Java while en route to Australia’s Christmas Island. At least 13 people drowned in the incident.
It is estimated there are 10,000 asylum seekers currently in Indonesia who plan to travel to Australia. “The Indonesian government assists a little on the asylum seeker issue, but does little to halt the flow of asylum seekers,” said Damien Kingsbury, director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University, Melbourne. “Compared to the way it cracked down on domestic terrorism, in which its domestic intelligence sources were used to full effect, it has made very little effort in this regard. This is problematic given that the armed forces are implicated in the people smuggling trade.”
The former government’s so-called ‘PNG solution’ aims to stop asylum seekers getting on the boats in the first place, thus taking the onus off of Indonesia, which remains a strong ally of Australia. For Indonesian Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro, this is an agreeable approach, with the country evidently preferring to take an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ line on the issue.
“The Indonesian navy has higher priorities than preventing Middle Eastern and Sri Lankan asylum seekers from trying to get to Australia,” said Harold Crouch, an emeritus professor at the Australian National University’s School of International, Political and Strategic Studies. “Naturally, Indonesia wants to use its limited resources to meet Indonesian priorities, not Australian [ones].”
When asked in July if he thought more could be done to stop people losing their lives at sea, Purnomo was diplomatic, but fundamentally stated that it could not. His navy worked closely with Australia on 52 rescue operations this year involving the “illegal movement of people”, he said, but Indonesia’s resources are concentrated on policing illegal logging and fish poaching in the vast archipelago.
“The Indonesian government has been long on rhetoric but short on action,” said Kingsbury. “Having said that, it does lack expertise and resources, but also doesn’t care because this is not an Indonesian domestic problem.” However, with the current government having previously stated that they will turn asylum seeker boats back to Indonesian waters, it could become harder for the Asean nation to ignore the problem.
Purnomo has refused to be drawn on whether Indonesia would cooperate with Australia if it decided to turn back asylum boats, but he has reiterated the point that Indonesia expects nothing to be implemented without bilateral talks, cautioning Australia against any steps that would “make your neighbour unhappy”.
To date, Indonesia has played a limited role in preventing the flow of boat people crossing its borders, leaving Australia plagued by the asylum seeker conundrum. How far the Australian government will go to crack down on illegal immigration is one question; the extent to which the country is willing to jeopardise its solid international relations with Indonesia
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