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Off loading our problems off shore

By Susan Metcalfe - posted Tuesday, 13 March 2007

The Australian Government's reaction to the recent boat arrival of 83 Sri Lankan asylum seekers from Indonesia, reflects a government trying to appear tough and “in control” in front of an Australian domestic audience. Rather than trying to ensure the security of the human beings who have come seeking assistance, the Australian Government has focused its efforts on trying to dispose of a “messy” problem as quickly as possible.

Current government responses to boat arrivals in Australia have been formulated within the context of domestic politics, denying recognition to the human suffering and the survival stories of those who arrive. Within a domestic political agenda, played out between both major parties in Australia, each boat arrival is perceived as a failure of control and management and provides the justification for even tougher attitudes towards asylum seekers.

But when viewed within the wider context of global conflict and the displacement of traumatised and frightened people, the arrival of this group of Sri Lankans - like Afghans, Iraqis and others before them in recent years - should instead draw our attention to the significant increase in violence and persecution in this country and the vulnerability of its population. Within this framework we should feel motivated to assist not only the people arriving but others who may be facing extreme difficulties inside or outside the relevant country.


Recent reports from Sri Lanka tell of widespread and increased killings, abductions, torture and abuse. UNHCR has stated that individuals are “liable to suffer serious human rights transgressions”, recommending that “all asylum claims of individuals from Sri Lanka be examined carefully under fair and efficient refugee status determination procedures.”

But in spite of these recommendations and the widely reported deterioration of conditions in Sri Lanka, the Australian Government has persisted in negotiating with Indonesia to accept the return of these men.

If not for the willingness of the Indonesians to speak publicly, and the eagerness of the Sri Lankan Government to lobby for the return of the asylum seekers, Australian people would know nothing of these negotiations. Indonesia officials have openly maintained from the outset that they would not receive people back for processing but would instead send people straight back to Sri Lanka if they were returned.

Indonesia has long served as a departure point for boats of asylum seekers coming to Australia. In the 1990s, some of the Labor Party's attempts to deter boats from Indonesia focused on encouragements for people to remain in Indonesian camps.

In 1990 when Cambodians began arriving by boat, the Labor Government, concerned about an influx of arrivals, decided to fund an upgrade to the Galang refugee camp in Indonesia. The living conditions in Galang had been poor and although many people had languished there for years without resettlement options, the main concern of the Labor Government was to find incentives to stop them from coming to Australia.

In 2000, Indonesia rejected a proposal by the current Australian Government to use one of Indonesia's islands to run an Australian funded processing centre. The then Justice and Human Rights Minister of Indonesia stated, “We already have a lot of problems in the country, why should we add more problems? ... why doesn't Australia use one of their own islands?”


Again in 2001, when the Australian Government went shopping for offshore options to solve their self created Tampa crisis, and to draw attention away from overflowing detention centres in Australia, the Indonesians refused without hesitation - they wanted no repeat of Galang which had taken many years to clear of unwanted asylum seekers and refugees.

Over recent years, numerous refugees and asylum seekers have remained in indefinite limbo in Indonesia, some cared for by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) at Australia's expense. But the long term security and future of asylum seekers and refugees in a country without obligations under the UN Refugee Convention cannot be guaranteed.

In their current dealings with the Australian Government, members of the Indonesian Government must also have in their minds the recent experience of Nauru, where people where left to languish in Australian run processing centres for more than five years. Clearly, the Australian Government has no long term strategy other than to deposit asylum seekers in other countries, at great expense to the Australian taxpayer, and hope for a solution to present itself.

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About the Author

Susan Metcalfe is a writer and researcher who made many independent visits to the Nauru detention centre during the time of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution policy. She is the author of the recently published book The Pacific Solution (Australian Scholarly Publishing

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