Iranians have emerged as a rapidly rising category of asylum seekers arriving by boat since the middle of last year, constituting an estimated half of all arrivals this financial year compared to 36% a year earlier and just 6% in 2009-10, according to government figures.

With most of the arrivals transiting through Indonesia on their way to Australia, the issue was a topic of discussion between Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and his Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa when they met in Jakarta on Monday.

“I raised with Marty Natalegawa the growing challenge of the Iranian caseload to Australia,” Rudd told a media briefing in Jakarta on Tuesday. “That caseload has grown rapidly in recent months. Australia will be working actively with Indonesia in the period ahead on how that particular pipeline can be reduced or closed.

“This will not be easy. None of this sort of work is. But both myself and [Immigration Minister] Chris Bowen want to be completely up front about the nature of this new challenge and the need to deal with it.”

Rudd and Natalegawa agreed that their governments would share information on the flow of asylum seekers, much of it gathered by Australia through interviews with new arrivals, in a bid to track the people smuggling pipeline. The pair also agreed that Australia would provide expertise in document authentication and scrutiny in order to staunch the steady stream of fabricated passports and visas.

For Indonesia, people smuggling is not a high priority given the fact the country merely acts as a transit point. But the government has acquiesced to Australia’s desire for the criminalisation of people smuggling, and new laws are understood to have already led to the prosecution of two smugglers, who face sentences of up to five years each.

Iranians gain relatively painless entry to Indonesia, with the Middle Eastern country on the list of those whose nationals are able to acquire a visa on arrival. That has meant that Iranians ultimately seeking to arrive in Australia by boat are able to conduct the stretch of the journey as far as Indonesia without legal difficulty. After leaving Iran, many head to Dubai, then cool their heels in Bali or Java before making the final journey south.

And it appears there is little chance of the Indonesians restricting the entry of Iranians. The two are members of the G-77 group of developing countries, and the Indonesians are unlikely to further isolate a regime that already has few allies. But the Indonesians are also aware that the longer the flow remains poorly policed, the more chance of it becoming an established pipeline.

In 2010-11, the number of irregular maritime arrivals coming from Iran was 1669, Australian government data shows.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Rudd on Monday, Natalegawa cited the Bali process as central to disruption of people smugglers.

“We have discussed in broad terms the issue of people smuggling and ways and means a country like Indonesia, essentially a transit country, as well as Australia, essentially a destination country, can work hand in hand through the Bali process in disrupting the flow of a smuggled person or the people and we have agreed just now to share information whether from Iran or elsewhere so we can intercept, disrupt and prevent the continuation of such activities,” he said.

Early indications are that many of the Iranians arrivals are middle-class residents of big cities such as Tehran who have been able to summon up the tens of thousands of dollars to pay a people smuggler for a chance at entry to Australia. As essentially economic refugees, they face little chance of their claim being accepted.

In their surging numbers, Iranians are replacing Iraqis, Afghans and Sri Lankans among those who constitute large shares of Australia’s asylum seeker applicants.

Also discussed at Monday’s meeting was Indonesia’s relaxation of entry requirements for Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, a move that has sparked fears that it will facilitate their more easy entry to Australia. Natalegawa assured Rudd that applications from those countries would still be subject to scrutiny, and the policy would be subject to later review.

Peter Fray

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