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Boat people again?

By Tony Kevin - posted Thursday, 6 April 2006

When, on March 24, Hassan Wirayuda, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, criticised the just-announced Australian Government’s decision to grant temporary protection visas to 42 West Papuan asylum-seekers who had landed on Cape York in January, after a dangerous open-seas voyage by canoe from West Papua, he said on ABC PM:

We have seen inconsistencies on the part of the Australian Government in dealing with issues of illegal migrants. We have been working very closely with them in the past three years, and for that matter the decisions of the Australian Government and in this case Immigration Department's reflect in their inconsistencies. And we are afraid this would weaken co-operation among parties in dealing with cases of illegal migrants.

The Indonesian style is allusive and elliptical. There may be more to this than meets the eye. Let us recall a little recent history.


A sharp upsurge of Middle Eastern asylum-seekers, in unauthorised entry boats, tried to reach Australian territory from Indonesia in 1999-2001. Several thousand succeeded. The result was Operation Relex, a full-scale mobilisation, starting in September 2001, of Australian Defence Force military surveillance and interception capability in the waters between Indonesia and Australia’s Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef. The Australian objective was to deter any unauthorised voyages and deny the passengers’ entry to Australia.

There is credible evidence to suggest that the upsurge in people smuggling from Indonesia had been encouraged by some Indonesian national security agencies, which may have given a green light to the activities of favoured people smugglers, possibly sharing the profits with them, as a way of penalising Australia for its role in achieving the independence of East Timor in 1998-99.

In response, Australian agencies AFP and DIMIA (possibly also involving ASIS) were authorised by the Australian Government to set up covert people-smuggling disruption operations in Indonesia between 1999 and 2001, using paid local agents like Kevin Enniss and supportive teams within the Indonesian police, to disrupt voyages, sabotage engines and even sink boats (see official testimony, in particular from Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, in the 2002 Senate Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident).

It seems possible - we don’t know, because even now nobody in officialdom is talking - that a covert struggle developed in these years on Indonesian soil, between agencies trying to mount unauthorised voyages and agencies trying to disrupt them.

It all may have come to a head with the internationally headlined tragedy of the sinking of SIEV X on October 19, 2001, drowning 353 Middle Eastern asylum-seekers (mostly women and children) in international waters monitored by Operation Relex, 50-60 miles south of the Sunda Strait. The memory of that terrible event reverberates still in Australia.

The shock of the sinking of SIEV X, however it was caused, forced the Indonesian Government’s hand. Almost overnight Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda agreed to Australian demands for an international conference in Bali against people smuggling, which Indonesia had been resisting.


The conference was co-chaired by Indonesia and Australia in early 2002. Indonesia also consented to the Australian Navy towing back asylum-seeker boats to Indonesian territorial waters. There were no more major people-smuggling attempts from Indonesia to Australia after SIEV X: the illegal trade quickly evaporated.

Wirayuda’s reminder that Australia and Indonesia have worked closely on “issues of illegal immigrants … in the past three years” (i.e. since the 2002 Bali conference) seems to me to send a fairly pointed message to Australian authorities: don’t be surprised if you find a renewed problem of Middle Eastern boat people on your doorstep.

There are still understood to be quite a large number of Middle Eastern origin asylum-seekers being maintained in transit camps or hostels in various parts of Indonesia, managed by UN agencies, with financial support from the Australian Government. Many of these people have been awarded refugee status by the UNHCR, but have not found any country willing to accept them, or are still hoping to be allowed to come to Australia because of close family ties here.

This might help explain a recent statement by Senator Ellison (Minister for Customs and responsible for Coastwatch, which in normal times manages Australian border protection) that Australian border protection surveillance in the waters south of West Papua has been significantly stepped up.

Only this week, Indonesian President Yudhoyono publicly renewed Wirayuda's warnings of ten days earlier. According to press agencies, Yudhoyono reportedly said, "Indonesia would review co-operation with Australia aimed at curbing people smugglers who use Indonesia as a stopover point to Australia's north."

One can't get much clearer than that. And you read it here first in On Line Opinion.

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About the Author

Tony Kevin holds degrees in civil engineering, and in economics and political science. He retired from the Australian foreign service in 1998, after a 30-year career during which he served in the Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s departments, and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He is currently an honorary visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in Canberra. He has written extensively on Australian foreign, national security, and refugee policies in Australia’s national print media, and is the author of the award-winning books A Certain Maritime Incident – the Sinking of SIEV X, and Walking the Camino: a modern pilgrimage to Santiago. His third book on the global climate crisis, Crunch Time: Using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era was published by Scribe in September 2009.

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