The corruption and bribery chains operating in the Indonesian people smuggling trade as shown in the ABC’s Four Corners last night have their roots in Australian government policy. Four Corners detailed the money changing hands in bribes to release people from Indonesian prisons and then to aid their escape by boat. What this program did not show was the way in which flawed policy in one country creates criminal activity in another.
This trade developed after the Howard government set up Indonesia as a de facto refugee processing centre by funding the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) to warehouse refugees there. The present situation presents a timely warning for any Pacific nation being targeted to accept Australian funding in exchange for providing another yet another off-shore processing centre.
Few Australians noticed that millions of dollars were allocated to IOM annually since 2001 to feed and house the refugees and most importantly to keep them there. This was done by promising eventual re-settlement. The scheme took 10 years to break down and did so as people realised that resettlement was a non-core promise. Many of these refugees have set off for Christmas Island with their UNHCR refugee recognition cards in hand.
New arrivals to Indonesia soon learnt that being processed as a refugee by UNHCR did not guarantee resettlement and they too have paid to get on boats to apply directly.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) have played a pivotal role in limiting movement to Australia. The AFP have unlimited access to Indonesian detention centres, interviewing, photographing and profiling refugees there. This access is made more remarkable when we consider the furore if Indonesian police attempted similar access to Australian detention and prison facilities.
The AFP have had a first-hand view of all Indonesian police activities. AFP officers operate alongside Indonesian police and immigration officials in Indonesia. They do the surveillance and intelligence gathering, riding the ferries between Malaysia and Indonesia and watching out for groups of likely asylum seekers.
A young Afghan refugee now in Australia explained to me how it is done. He said, “I was on the ferry from Malaysia with five others and this woman in dark glasses was watching us. She was pretending to read a book but I knew that she was looking at us. She spoke to the crew and then a man came over and said — don’t be scared — I am not police but where are you from and where are you going?”
Later that night when the boys were at a hostel waiting for a call from someone to tell them to go to the beach, a man came into the room and shouted “we’re surrounded”. The boy looked out into the hall and saw the woman with the dark glasses with other Australians. He said that they were arrested by the Indonesia police and taken to the police lock-up where the Australians including the woman questioned them for hours, took their photos and names. He said that they identified them selves as AFP officers — first names only.
Another boy explained to me that the AFP officers in Jakarta target young unaccompanied teenagers promising them that that if they give information about who is going to the boats and when, that they will get them visas to go to Australia “the proper way”. This boy told me that you can tell who is informing because they have $A50 notes. They are paid these bribes by AFP to inform on movements. He said that these kids are desperate because they have often been cheated by people smugglers, then have no money and are living on the streets of Jakarta.
It takes months to get registered at UNHCR and even longer to be interviewed and get a UNHCR card. During this time, they are homeless and hungry. I have contacted a Catholic agency there who have literally rescued a boy from the streets. With little money, they are picking up these kids and providing shelter and food.
Ever since the former Prime Minister started pushing back the boats and formed alliances with Indonesian officials and the IOM to warehouse refugees, this situation has created a market for corruption and people smuggling. While the numbers were small, Indonesia turned a blind eye but now that arrivals have increased with no accompanying increase in resettlement places the Indonesian government is hardening its stance against the people arriving.
Recently Indonesian immigration announced that it would no longer release people who have been assessed as refugees from detention. This has opened up a trade in bribes as people are desperate to get out of the appalling conditions in Indonesian centres. Even the Australian-built and funded detention centre at Tanjung Pinang has conditions that would never be tolerated here. There are 50-60 people crammed into cells with no furniture, eating and sleeping on the floor. They have little to access to fresh air or outdoor space, the women and children are separated from their husbands and fathers with visiting rights limited to one hour per day.
The conditions in Indonesia as well as the threats by Australian politicians to push boats back and lock people out has created a panic that is seeing boats of all sizes and conditions setting off to Australia now despite all the AFP and Indonesian police attempts to stop the boats.
The best way to stop the boats is to give people an alternative. The Australian government is to be congratulated for finally realising this and announcing an increase in places from 50 per year to 500 for these people found to be refugees by UNHCR. No one who values human life could oppose this positive action to stop people embarking on dangerous boat journeys. It is to be hoped that the Opposition supports this “real action”.