As Australian eyes, sympathy and aid turn towards the
victims of the latest Indonesian natural disaster in Yogyakarta, the Australian Parliament has before it a bill
which will deny justice and humanity to the victims of a man-made
disaster

An earthquake is big, rapid, and can be captured by our
media – we can whack a few dollars into the appeal tins, and know we’ve done
something to help. Because it’s portrayed as an act of God, we don’t have to
struggle too hard to comprehend it. On the other hand, the disaster in the
Indonesian territory of Papua has been slow, 45 years in the
making, hard to capture on the television, is a complex mess of issues, and
partly our own fault, or at least that of our political leaders since the
1960s.

But Australia is about to turn its back on this mad made
disaster, the poverty, degradation, torture, terror and extra-judicial killings
in Papua, with the introduction this week into the national Parliament of
the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006. Or,
perhaps more appropriately, the ‘Indonesian Appeasement
Bill’.

This Bill is underpinned by the Howard government’s
customary political cynicism when it comes to dealing with asylum seekers. That
is, the diverting of asylum seekers from the Tampa and other boats in 2001 to Manus Island
and Nauru was a roaring
political success and so let’s try it again with West
Papuans.

Or, to quote Macbeth, “I am in blood stepped in so far
that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go
o’er”.

The ‘Indonesian Appeasement’ Bill is the latest
instalment in the Australian bureaucracy’s insensitive handling of the West
Papuan issue. There’s been a long standing concern, right back to the 1950s,
that the Refugee Convention should not mean that refugees from Indonesia come here. In particular,
the Optional Protocol to the Refugee Convention of 1967, which generalised the
principles designed for European war-time refugees to all in similar situations,
was a big worry. Australia
waited to sign it until the day after we gave self-government to
Papua New Guinea – because
then the West Papuans who fled the Indonesian
army would largely be someone else’s business, technically and bureaucratically
speaking.

When the unthinkable happens and some West Papuans make it here, there’s no doubt they have a
good claim for protection, and there’s no choice but to give it. And Indonesia goes wild, as of course
they would.

Of course, it’s not in our national interest to have a
large group of West Papuan refugees living a marginal life in Australia and agitating against the
world’s biggest Muslim nation, our neighbour. This is what Immigration
Minister Senator
Vanstone calls using Australia as a “staging post” for
rebellion. Nor is it in the refugees’ interests: sometimes in the arguments
about the rights of asylum seekers and their treatment in Australia, we lose sight of the
fundamental principle that giving people no option but to get into boats and
flee is already a disaster. And that often the boats just don’t make it, even
without the Navy turning them away, or other forces disrupting
them.

So how do we avoid the “staging post” and the fleeing
thousands? (No exaggeration – there are thousands living in border refugee camps
in Papua New
Guinea already.) Simply, get in and stop the
disasters before they drive people to flee. We can give Indonesia the assistance it needs to
build a democratic state where the rule of law applies and human rights are
respected – or if they don’t want Australians there doing that – we can make
sure that the international community does so.

It is wrong to characterise Indonesia as simply the same State
that committed mass killings in the past. It’s trying to reform. The move
towards resolution of conflict in Aceh is the clearest practical sign. At a
political level, Indonesia has made a set of
international commitments on human rights, which provide a clear framework for
international monitoring and assistance. In late April this year, it put itself
forward for election to the newly reformed UN Human Rights Council, and made a
set of pledges for national and international action.

This Indonesian Appeasement Bill will sail through the
House of Representatives over the next few weeks.

But when this bill comes before the Senate, let’s hope that
Senators show that they can recognise some really bad law and policy – and for
once take control of some big issues. Let’s hope senators realise that this
proposed law is a worse piece of legislation than that which set up mandatory
detention.

It’s a simple message to Senators. After all that has
gone wrong in immigration: Vote no to the bill, or just don’t vote for it!
Australia cannot turn its
back on the disaster of West Papua, anymore than it can on the Yogyakarta earthquake.

Howard Glenn is
Executive Director of Rights Australia and a refugee advocate.
Greg Barns has been an adviser to the Howard government and a member of the
Australian Democrats.

Peter Fray

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