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Refugee focus is on Indonesia now

By Klaas Woldring - posted Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Statements made by Foreign Minister Carr that Australia's entire migrant intake of 180,000 could be occupied by those brought here by people-smugglers if the trade were allowed to flourish (Australian 3/9) seem very high but do call for immediate appropriate action. Stopping their trade must surely be the prime objective of Australian Government policy.

Drastic measures are required not to turn the boats back but to prevent them from leaving altogether. It is puzzling why arrangements have not been made with the Indonesian Government to process refugees there and then move them to Australia as soon as approved. It is in Indonesia that the people smugglers have their operational base and networks so the supply of customers for them would basically dry up. It appears that during the recent visit of the Indonesian President, when meeting the Australian PM and her delegation, no serious solutions along these lines were discussed. The Panel of Experts, reporting subsequently, does advocate "regional solutions" but is not specifically Indonesia oriented.

Apparently the Howard Government funded the long established International Organisation of Migration (IMO) in Indonesia quite handsomely, from 2001, to set up a de facto processing centre there to house and feed the refugees, promising them eventual resettlement. This practice may have helped to stop the flow of boats for some time but it could not be a long-term solution. Many refugees have languished in camps in Indonesia for years with empty promises and hopes. Given that the recent recommendations by the Expert Panel to increase Australia's humanitarian intake to 20,000 per year has been accepted an immediate start with moving processed and approved refugees can be made. Staffing existing processing centres and, possibly, starting new ones by the Australian Government would seem to be the obvious way to go. One would think that would definitely be Bob Carr's priority now.


According to the organisers of the recent SBS program "Go Back where you come from" 3,000 refugees in Indonesia are ready to come right now. As Green leader Milne suggested on the ABC's Insiders program (2/9) inform them all refugees in Indonesia that the policy has changed so that they will stop going on boats. Some steps have been taken to take effect.

It is quite difficult to establish a definite number of refugees in Indonesia. In a recent UNHCR publication distinction is made between "Residing in Indonesia" (4,239) and "Originating from Indonesia" (16,446). Another distinction is made between "Refugees" and "Asylum seekers".

In a recent Greens circular from Adam Bandt MP, one reads:

There are 8000 people waiting to be processed in Indonesian refugee camps and only two UN officers processing applications. This means only 70 people per year having their claims processed with the average wait time for processing at 76 years. No wonder people are getting on boats.

As Indonesia has not acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol one wonders what their legal status is there. In any case lots of refugees in transit may well have their eye on Australia and, if they can afford it, would be inclined to go for the boats and increase their status as refugees by arriving in a country that is a signatory to the Convention.

Another document, from the Edmund Rice Centre, explains that the resettlement places were in fact very limited: both in Australia and elsewhere. Of more than 85,000 UNHCR recognised refugees that were in Malaysia in 2011, only just 8400 were resettled globally. The average settlement in Australia from Indonesia is claimed to be 50 a year only for the period 2001 – 2009. The time has come to change tack in Indonesia. This is exactly where the focus must be in the first instance.


Most refugees are highly motivated, committed migrants. It may well be true that a majority of them are primarily economic refugees rather than the political ones on which the UN Refugee Convention was essentially based in 1951. We should welcome them, train them and get them in the workforce as soon as possible instead of detaining them somewhere for years either in Indonesia or here or elsewhere. The wholly negative "deterrence" syndrome should go. What are we really talking about here? Up to 20,000 more refugees a year? Australia can handle that easily. It is both laughable and tragic that the issue exists at all. Does it have something to do with public misconceptions and who votes for what major party; the fear factor amongst a small minority of racist swinging voters?

A high percentage will be on welfare for the first three or four years. But, in the longerterm, Australia will greatly benefit, as it always has. And perhaps, we should think twice in future about involving ourselves in silly conflicts in the world without considering the long term consequences of extended wars and population movements. The still largely unquestioned subservience towards the US resulting in following their foreign policy follies, no matter what, has landed this country in many undesirable war theatres since Vietnam. Yes, we are staunch friends with the US but we would have been better friends if we said NO to involvements that are senseless. The money wasted on these futile exercises, would have been better spent on increases in our very modest foreign aid outlays.

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About the Author

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University.

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