Political debate now rages in Australia, but there is no simple answer to why Australia has seen a recent increase in attempts by asylum seekers to enter Australia. What is known, however, is that the asylum seekers that do attempt to come to Australia by boat invariably come via Indonesia, and that much of the problem lies there.

Under the Howard government’s increased focus on asylum seekers, Australia federal agents worked with Indonesian counterparts to identify and stop people smugglers. Given the risks involved, this work was shrouded in secrecy, but it is believed that there were occasions when Australian agents acted directly.

For their part, Indonesian police assisted in some cases, with some people smugglers being arrested, mostly for violating immigration laws. However, there have been difficulties in receiving complete Indonesian assistance.

Indonesia’s president has worked closely with both Howard and Rudd governments to stop people smuggling, most recently under international sanctions on human trafficking. At the most senior level, cooperation between the two countries is very good.

However, Indonesia’s domestic laws against people smuggling are largely based on immigration offences and not related to people smuggling as such. What this means is that if a person ultimately seeking asylum in Australia enters or exits Indonesia legally, which is relatively easy to do, there is little the Indonesian authorities can do. At a local level, Indonesia’s judiciary remains susceptible to bribery, so charges can easily be dropped or convictions avoided or reduced.

It is also believed that Indonesian diplomats in places such as Kabul have assisted people smugglers by issuing visas for cash. This situation is further assisted by many immigration officials at smaller exit ports being open to bribery.

A further complication is that members of the Indonesian military have been involved in protecting the people smuggling trade, intimidating both police and immigration officials. As a result, independent Indonesian action against people smugglers is rarely enforced.

Despite Australia’s desires, Indonesia has more important priorities than passing new, stronger laws to crack down on people smuggling. This is compounded by the slowness of the passage of much legislation and the disinterest or antipathy felt by some Indonesian legislators towards Australia.

One factor in this antipathy is that some Indonesian legislators believe the problem is Australia’s, not theirs. They also note that Australia devotes considerable border protection resources to stopping Indonesian fishing in Australian territorial waters — waters they say were traditionally Indonesian. That Australia burns captured illegal Indonesian fishing boats and jails their crews also leave a bitter taste for many Indonesians.

Perhaps indicative of the problems that exist between Australia and Indonesia, the two countries share a long-standing extradition treaty which has not yet been enacted, despite requests from both sides. Cooperation between Australia and Indonesia is officially very good but, in common to much of Indonesia, practice often fails to match the rhetoric.

Associate Professor Damien Kingsbury of the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University is author of a number of books on Indonesian politics.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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