THE decision to grant refugee status to 42 Papuan asylum seekers has generated a great deal of sound and fury. Indonesia was never going to be happy with the decision and the response from nationalist MPs in Jakarta is predictable. The situation has been made more volatile because the granting of protection visas to the asylum seekers has coincided with an upsurge in unrest in Papua itself. But it is too soon to claim - as some Australian analysts have done - that there is a new ‘crisis’ in bilateral relations. If relations really do descend into crisis over the refugee issue, then the ties between Canberra and Jakarta will have proved to be flimsy indeed.
The current upset over the Papuan asylum seekers is the latest in a long history of similar incidents. The difference this time is that the immigration minister, Amanda Vanstone, has followed due process in allowing the refugee determination process to take its course.
Previous ministers - both Liberal and Labor - have attempted to assuage Jakarta’s displeasure by publicly attacking the credibility of asylum seekers from the Indonesian archipelago or by manoeuvring to ensure that their claims were never assessed.
In mid 1985, when five Papuans arrived by boat on Thursday Island, Labor’s immigration minister, Chris Hurford, declared that they would not be allowed to remain in Australia. He said that if the men proved to be “genuine” refugees, the government would seek a third country in which to resettle them.
Mr Hurford worried that if the Papuans were allowed to stay, then Australia could be “deluged with people crossing the short distance in small boats to the islands and coastline of Northern Australia”. He was also concerned not to upset Jakarta: “We regard Indonesia as a friendly neighbour we certainly don’t want too many dissidents from Indonesia in this country, there are plenty of other places in the world they can go.” (Australian, 18 July 1985)
These twin fears - encouraging further arrivals and upsetting Jakarta - appear to have influenced policy since the early 1960s, when Indonesia took control of Papua from the Dutch and Papuan “border crossers” began seeking sanctuary in the Australian territory of PNG. As my colleague Klaus Neumann documents in his book Refugee Australia, the Department of Territories drafted a policy in 1964 which warned that allowing “permanent movement across the border for dissidents to settle in the Australian Territory could start the migration of such numbers as might burden the people receiving them and at the same time give grounds for suspicious on the part of the Indonesian Administration that this was deliberate and ill-meant, thereby impairing neighbourly relations.”
In the mid 1990s, when East Timorese asylum seekers sought Australia’s protection, the same arguments re-surfaced, although this time emanating from Jakarta. Indonesia’s foreign minister, Ali Alatas, warned that granting refugee status to the East Timorese “may cause difficulties for Australia” and could prompt a flood of similar arrivals. Prime Minister Keating, a self-declared friend of the dictator Suharto, was quick to show solidarity with the Indonesian point of view. He pre-empted departmental decision makers, tribunals and courts by pronouncing his own verdict of the East Timorese case, declaring that “Timorese people have Portuguese citizenship” and, as such, could make no call on Australia’s protection obligations under international law.
The hypocrisy of this position was breathtaking, given that Australia, alone amongst Western nations, recognised Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor. In fending off a challenge to its Timor Gap Treaty with Indonesia in the International Court of Justice, Australia had argued that “Portugal can point to no basis on which its position can be identified with that of the people of East Timor”. But as the legal dispute over the “effective” nationality of the East Timorese dragged through the courts, Australia postponed any finding as to their refugee status - and so avoided upsetting Jakarta. Meanwhile, the asylum seekers themselves were condemned to a life in limbo.
It is safe to assume that concerns about upsetting Jakarta or opening the floodgates also motivated Philip Ruddock as immigration minister. In January 2000 a boat landed in Western Australia carrying 54 Indonesian from the strife-torn island of Ambon in Maluku, where fighting between Christian and Muslim militia had forced a quarter of the population from their homes. Whether or not these people were refugees remains an open question, since they were never given an opportunity to have their cases determined. After two months in detention, 39 of them were quietly repatriated to Bali, with $400 in cash to help them return to Ambon. They had not even entered the refugee determination process and so had not been given access to lawyers or migration agents to advise them of their rights or help them to formulate a claim. The other 15 Ambonese refused to return home - but they too were kept outside the usual refugee determination process, being granted instead a series of rolling “safe haven visas” which allowed them to stay in Australia at the discretion of the minister. Again, Australia avoided upsetting Jakarta because there was no formal finding of refugee status - but the Ambonese, like the Timorese before them, were condemned to a life of limbo and uncertainty.
In contrast, Amanda Vanstone’s response to the Papuan asylum seekers of 2006 was straightforward. She declared from the outset that the Papuans’ asylum claims would be assessed individually under existing refugee determination procedures. While the decision to remove the asylum seekers to remote Christmas Island was poor policy in both financial and humanitarian terms, there was no attempt to prejudge the Papuans’ claims via pronouncements in the media and no dire warnings of floodgates opening. Vanstone was not rattled by the warnings from Jakarta’s foreign ministry that Australia could “disturb bilateral relations” and attract “a wave of boat people” by granting asylum to the Papuans. In fact, she gave departmental decision makers explicitly to understand that they should not be influenced by Jakarta’s concerns insisting that claims would be determined on their merits “rather than taking into account whether we’ll upset one or other of Australia’s friends and allies”.
It should hardly surprise us that asylum seekers will arrive from Indonesia to seek protection from persecution. In fact, given the instability, unrest and human rights abuse that has occurred in various parts of the archipelago in recent decades, it is remarkable that the number of asylum seekers coming directly from Indonesian territory has remained so low. The trickle may yet turn into a flood unless there is concerted action to find a long-term solution to the problems in Papua, but refugees are far more like to pour into Papua New Guinea than Australia. And if there is a rush of asylum seekers out of Papua (or Maluku or wherever) it will have more to do with the desperate conditions inside the territory than with perceptions of Australia as a “soft touch”.
When asylum seekers do arrive in Australia, they should be granted due process and have their claims assessed quickly and fairly - regardless of where they come from. The angry exchange of words over the 42 Papuan refugees will blow over just as similar past upsets have blown over - at least until the next group lands on our shores.