There are profound ironies in the evolution of Australian policy on asylum-seekers. We have moved from John Howard's heady nationalism of 2001 to abject appeasement of the Indonesian Government.
As a former career diplomat for 30 years, I have in the past drawn attention to the need to respect Indonesian national sovereignty and the sensitivities that properly go with it. (During the bitter standoff between the Howard and Wahid governments in late 2000, for instance, I even called on our leaders to apologise to Jakarta for Australia's diplomatic blunders in the lead-up to East Timor's independence in 1999.)
Yet, having said this, I am convinced the Government's policies in respect of Papuan asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by boat are not only unethical and internationally illegal, but also dangerous from an Australian national security viewpoint.
Last Thursday, the Government announced that boat people would be mandatorily removed to offshore processing centres in Nauru, Manus or Christmas Island and that, even for those who are judged to be genuine refugees under the UN Convention, they will all or mostly never be accepted to live in Australia.
But these policies send a wrong message not only to a fairly benign Indonesian Government but also to darker, extreme nationalist elements. The message is that an Australian government can be threatened - indeed blackmailed - into abandoning essential values and interests.
In recent weeks, Indonesian ministers have perceived and exploited Australian policy irresolution. The Immigration Department's decision to award only temporary rather than permanent protection visas led Indonesia's Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda to warn on March 24 that Indonesia had worked closely with Australia on issues of illegal immigrants in the past three years. Those problems, he implied, could return.
Within days, Defence Minister Brendan Nelson was offering possible joint patrols with the Indonesian Navy to intercept boatpeople south of Papua. Stepping up Australian surveillance in these waters begged the question of what to do with intercepted Papuans. On April 3, Indonesian President Yudhoyono emphasised Wirayuda's warning, saying "Indonesia would review co-operation with Australia aimed at curbing people smugglers who use Indonesia as a stopover point to Australia's north".
Last Thursday Howard caved in, announcing a clearly punitive policy of deterrence. Any boatpeople claiming refugee status would be sent to offshore processing (read detention) centres and in all probability would never be allowed to settle in Australia.
Howard may have hoped this would satisfy the Indonesians. Their main concern - to avoid build-up in Australia of a politically active Papuan refugee community, as had happened with the East Timorese - might appear to have been met. But the policy won't work. Yesterday, despite Canberra's attempts to placate Jakarta, Yudhoyono complained that Australia still showed insufficient respect for Indonesia's territorial integrity and that our Government should never have issued temporary protection visas to the Papuans.
The moral of the story: appeasement only generates further demands. Instead, Canberra should tell Jakarta: "You have a problem in Papua because you are not sufficiently respecting the rights of the people there to civil liberties and a fair share of their natural resources. Until you redress these wrongs, you will continue to have insurgency and refugee problems. If refugees seek protection here, we have no alternative but to consider their claims fairly and without political interference."
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