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Indonesia must be part of the asylum seeker solution

Indonesia must be part of the asylum seeker solution

by Ross Taylor
First published in The West Australian Newspaper - 4th July 2012

At last week’s Liberal Party Conference, former foreign minister, Alexander Downer told his party that, “any solution to the asylum seeker crisis must include Indonesia”.

He is right.

His leader’s idea that the way to ‘include’ Indonesia would be to simply turn the boats around and dump the hapless passengers back on Indonesian soil, was not only naive but unworkable. It would also cause a major strain in relationships between Australia and our neighbour.

But what if the asylum seekers were sent back to Indonesia as part of a bi-lateral agreement between our two countries that not only produced a desirable outcome for both Australia and Indonesia, but also placed genuine refugees back at the top of the queue where they should be?

Our political leaders therefore need to find a plan that would provide a solution to the current impasse, and simultaneously provide Indonesia with a major incentive to accept a new initiative to stop the flow of asylum seekers and ‘economic migrants’ who are transiting through their country.

The answer lies in Eastern Indonesia where most of the boats originate. Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT) is the official name of this Indonesian province and their governor (premier) is Frans Lebu Raya; not a name familiar to most Australians. NTT is probably Indonesia’s poorest province and its officials are desperate to seek-out investment that would create economic growth and jobs for their population which, interestingly, is predominately Christian.

It is this poverty, combined with its location, an abundance of fishermen, boats and isolated villages that makes this province so attractive to people smugglers and a launching stage for so many asylum seekers wanting to enter Australia.

So how would we involve Indonesia in a strategic and co-operative way to ‘stop the boats’?

The first step would be for Australia to propose to the NTT Governor, and to the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, that we jointly build a major detention processing centre in the NTT capital of Kupang. Australia would provide the money, the technology and expertise and Indonesia would provide the labour in which to operate the facility.

Such a centre would provide a significant boost for the local economy by creating a large number of jobs for local people. The ‘multiplier-effect’ of this facility would be enormous, with the need for many different skills, from bakers, food suppliers and carpenters to nurses, gardeners and plumbers; the list goes on.

Once established, all asylum seekers arriving into Australian waters would initially be received at Christmas Island and then within days transferred to the Kupang facility in Indonesia, and thus effectively sending the passengers back to their original transit point.

Asylum seekers would then be detained and processed in Indonesia.

The effect would be immediate and the people smuggling business model would collapse within weeks.

The benefits for Australia are obvious, but for Indonesia the impact could also be hugely beneficial. Not only would the creation of the processing facility in the NTT increase employment in the region, but within weeks, the flow of asylum seekers moving into Indonesia from other countries to its north and west would also slow dramatically as people learn that Indonesia had become the ‘journey end point’ rather than a transit point to Australia.

Such an initiative would face challenges. There would be issues that would need to be addressed for this plan to be attractive to Indonesia and be acceptable to human rights groups. Let’s consider the major ones:

• The ‘danger’ for the NTT region is that this plan could be too successful, and within 12 months the Kupang facility could be almost empty. This potentially would see the loss of the very jobs for local people that made the project attractive in the first place.

To overcome this eventuality the Australian Government could, as part of the original deal, offer the NTT a minimum fixed funding commitment irrespective of how many asylum seekers were held in the facility. In other words, should the flow of asylum seekers ‘dry up’ completely, then the excess funds that were budgeted for managing the facility would be directed through AusAid into community and infrastructure programs thus ensuring that, irrespective of the operation of the centre, local people would benefit from Australia’s investment in this region.

This would be expensive for Australia, but without a longer-term financial guarantee for the province there would not be the incentive for the Indonesian Governor or President to agree to such a plan.

• Commensurate with the centre’s operation, Australia would need to agree to at least double its intake of genuine refugees, many of whom are waiting patiently in Malaysia and Indonesia now.

Such a move would provide a significant incentive for people to observe the correct pathway and use the formal channels. For those who still wish to transit through Indonesia illegally in the effort to reach Australia, they would face the guarantee of ending back in a processing centre in Indonesia (Kupang).

For Human Rights activists and The Greens, who would no doubt claim that such treatment of asylum seekers was inhumane, there would be a fair response available: Just don’t take the asylum seeker route. Make a formal application to immigrate to, or seek refuge in, Australia and the new process will deal with your claim far more expeditiously.

The asylum seekers can make a choice and take responsibility for their actions.

• Indonesia’s domestic politics would also come into play under such a scheme with opposition parties inevitably claiming that the president had ‘cow-towed’ to Australia by agreeing to establish a processing centre in Eastern Indonesia.

For this reason the support of the provincial governor and his regional parliament would be critical. The argument that such a scheme would also have a major impact on Indonesia’s own difficulties with the number of asylum seekers using their country as a transit point, would help the project gain support.

This proposal would not be easy. Diplomats would also need to address the issue of what to do with asylum seekers who by-pass Indonesia and head direct to Australia from other countries?

Indonesia and Australia have shown that with goodwill, trust and co-operation our two countries can achieve great things together. The virtual elimination of the major terrorist groups such as Jamiah Islamiah in Indonesia is just one example of the highly successful way in which we can work together towards a mutually beneficial outcome.

And we can do it again.

The alternative will be a continuation of the current debacle with many lives being lost, many desperate people being exploited and Australia and Indonesia held at the mercy of the people smugglers.

*************

Ross Taylor is the chairman of the Indonesia Institute (Inc).

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