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Jan 20, 2014

Australia's big asylum seeker policy hole

Any plans for a regional solution to asylum seeker migration is in tatters because of his Australia's approach to Indonesia. We're in a policy hole, and we just keep digging.


Australia and Indonesia have worked hard over the past decade to build a strong bilateral relationship, seen as valuable by Indonesia and as critically important by Australia. That relationship is now in tatters.

The Australian government has been at pains to explain to Indonesia that recent naval incursions into Indonesian territorial waters, intended to stop asylum seeker boats, were unintentional. From Indonesia’s perspective, it matters little whether the incursions were intentional or just the logical if unintended consequence of a much disliked Australian government policy.

Similarly, Australia’s policy of giving asylum seekers lifeboats to return to Indonesia adds a further layer of complication to Australian policy. From Indonesia’s perspective, the flow of asylum seekers is not official Indonesian policy, but the Australian navy putting asylum seekers bound for Australia in Australian lifeboats bond for Indonesia is official Australian policy.

This policy is seen by Indonesia as diplomatically clumsy as it is objectionable. Indonesia has said, repeatedly, that it wants Australia to abandon its policy of turning back asylum seeker boats. Putting asylum seekers in lifeboats only heightens those objections.

Indonesia has now launched its own naval patrols, not to stop asylum seekers leaving Indonesia but to stop Australian naval incursions. Australian naval vessels will no doubt be extra cautious about future transgressions into Indonesian territorial waters and, beyond that, there are a series of warnings to go through before confrontation.

At best, however, the bilateral relationship is continuing to deteriorate. At worst, mistakes can happen.

The Australian navy may continue to turn (or tow) asylum seeker boats back to near Indonesian territorial waters. But it will not be able to compel asylum seeker boats to remain within them.

When the monsoonal season ends and the “sailing season” resumes, around April, the flow of asylum seeker boats is again likely to increase. The problem faced by the Australian Navy will, therefore, become more rather than less complicated.

The first question is, then, whether Australia’s defence approach to an immigration issue is sustainable. The second and larger question is whether Australia can continue to alienate, seeming indefinitely, its most important strategic relationship.

If Australia is serious about finding a long-term solution to the asylum seeker issue, it needs to work closely with Indonesia and other regional neighbors to put in place agreed and workable policies. Such policies go beyond the simple, if failed, “policing”” that existed until late last year.

Indonesia, probably Malaysia and possibly Thailand and Singapore need to have in place stricter immigration policies, to screen “onward bound” travellers. There also needs to be regional co-operation around the quicker and internationally recognised processing of those asylum seekers who do end up in the region.

Such a policy would limit the flow of asylum seekers, would meet Australia’s international obligations and would not alienate critically important relationships. However, this would require the type of trust and co-operation that Australia’s existing approach to asylum seekers has effectively ended.

The Australian government’s approach to asylum seekers worked well as a pre-election slogan, but lacked a properly developed plan. As a result, Australia has dug itself into a policy hole.

If Australia now wishes to extricate itself from this situation it must start by following the first rule of holes: when you are in one, stop digging.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University


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27 thoughts on “Australia’s big asylum seeker policy hole

  1. Tamas Calderwood

    Still, this ‘clumsy’ and ‘objectionable’ policy does seem to have stopped the boats… And the same policy acted as a ‘long term solution’ when it was implemented by the Howard government.

  2. Dez Paul

    Surely our Navy personnel are not that stupid, ill-equipped or incompetent to “unintentionally” stray into Indonesian waters? I bet Indonesian Officials don’t believe it.

    This gumint, on the other hand, is that stupid, ill-equipped, incompetent and/or venal to use the Navy as an excuse. What a tragedy, worsening daily.

  3. klewso

    Does this sort of patronising government policy qualify as “gun boat diplomacy”?

  4. j.oneill

    It is not just in our near north that the government is blundering around in foreign policy. As George Browning points out in The Age “Australia’s troubling stance on Israeli settlements” shows Bishop at her ignorant best. One has to assume that Bishop and Morrison are not acting off their own bat and have the support of Abbott and the Cabinet.

    If it wasn’t so potentially dangerous in all sorts of ways for Australia’s best interests it might almost be funny.

  5. klewso

    j., Bishop has an ignorant “best”?
    Reckon this hasn’t been passed by “The Credlin”?

  6. Venise Alstergren

    KLEWSO: I think it should be called “none boat diplomacy.”

    I’m perilously close to becoming ashamed to be an Australian.

  7. Observation

    It would seem the government has placed our navy in the position of prosecutor, judge and jury. The captain of each boat has been given the authority to automatically categorize everyone of these asylum seekers as illegal immigrants, every man woman and child.

    And in the name of placing these people out of a dangerous situation we tow them back towards Indonesia. How is this done, do we ensure their boat is in good mechanical order, with enough food, water and fuel to return to Indonesia only?? Do we need to encroach into Indonesian waters to do this safely? Maybe the Australian public should ask the Jakarta post to investigate?

    I hope this policy fails, because if it does not it will surely set the bar of our humanitarian level below a snakes belly.

  8. Gratton Wilson

    Are we inviting a situation where an Indonesian vessel inadvertently(?) injures Australian naval personnel loitering near the Indonesian marine borders?

  9. graybul

    Cyclone season(s) stop boats! Even then . . how would we know?? Stopping boats, is a distraction! Treatment of Refugees under ‘Rule of the Sea’ and UN Mandates, are the jagged rocks that ultimately will wreck Australian relationships externally, and social values internally.

  10. klewso

    What a pity this Murdoch government hasn’t got half to do the right thing …. that’s all it would take?

  11. klewso

    Correction, should read “What a pity this Murdoch government hasn’t got half a mind to do the right thing …. that’s all it would take?”

  12. Jimmyhaz

    I have a novel and brilliant solution to the asylum seeker problem: We realise that we are an international player with international obligations, one of them being the reception and integration of those seeking asylum into Australian society, regardless of the xenophobes that would rather us a country without brown people.

    The amount of people that seek asylum ‘illegally’ (how exactly does one do that?) in Australia each year is utterly dwarfed by nations that don’t have the infrastructure nor capacity to humanely treat those who seek it. We do have this capacity, and the fact that we chose to treat asylum seekers as we do makes me utterly ashamed to be Australian.

  13. Western Red

    If Australia is the ultimate planned destination for asylum seekers arriving in Indonesia then it would seem to me that both Indonesia and Australia have the same challenge, how to deter asylum seekers arriving in Indonesia. If turning the boats back works then that should stem the flow for both countries ?

    Assuming of course that one of the lifeboats doesn’t sink with loss of life .

  14. bushby jane

    The life boats should provide more reliable and safe passage (than their old ones)for asylum seekers when they are reused to sail from Indonesia to Australia on a return trip.
    What happens when Indonesia retaliates against our naval vessels, will Abbott and co take responsibility for deaths etc.?

  15. graybul

    Western Red . . . Yes, both Indonesia and Australia are challenged. As is UK, Italy, Germany etc etc. But only a ‘first world’ Australia, has a brutal, de-personalising official policy of incarceration based upon, or resulting in, psychological damage to children and families.

  16. Observation

    So we no longer buy the boats from Indonesia, now we buy life boats for Indonesia?

  17. Tyler T

    remember the scorn people heaped on rudd for suggesting that exactly this scenario could play out. What a predictable mess

  18. AR

    Nothing “logical if unintended consequence’ of the ‘bop the stoats’ policy -surely you meant inevitable.
    If you give a bunch of testosterone fuelled blokes & blokettes unlimited power & a policy of 3 words, waddya expect?

  19. CML

    I do not believe that the Australian Navy vessel(s) involved in towing back boats to Indonesian waters, did not know where they were. That defies the imagination! What does it mean if these guys/girls are ever involved in a war at sea? That they don’t know where they are at, or where they are going???
    IMHO they were following orders from their political masters, who couldn’t give a sh+t about the sovereignty of another country. But the good bit is, those same political masters laid the blame squarely on the navel personnel on these ships. Bloody outrageous! And cowardly!!
    Also, I have a question about these lifeboats – I read somewhere there are 16 of them. If we transfer asylum seekers to these boats, then tow or send them back to Indonesia, how do we get our lifeboats back?
    I think bushby jane is right. We should label them boomerang boats, because they will probably end up sailing into the harbour at Christmas Island when the monsoon season ends soon. At least they might be safer for the trip than the boats currently in use!

  20. David Hand

    I reckon the Australian navy entered Indonesian waters to reduce the risk of deaths at sea by releasing asylum seeker boats close to the coast.

    Well now that’s been stopped they’ll have to think of something else.

  21. Andybob

    Some borders are more sovereign than others.

  22. Ken Lambert

    Onya Tamas – good to see you making sense as usual.

    Damien – turn it up mate! The Indonesian Search & Rescue have little rubber boats which can’t go out at night – I heard it on the ABC.

    They expect our magnificent Navy to rescue asylum seekers on the breakers if they call ‘000’ Oz.

    They have been paid off by the smugglers and need to keep this nice little earner going.

    Did you not hear Bam Bam’s little foreign minister? Boats coming back is bad for business mate – even if we have to use our Indonesian Navy which can go out at night to escort the smugglees off the premises.

  23. graybul

    “little foreign minister” Is that the same as . . little johnny howard?

  24. Malcolm Street

    David – then perhaps they could have informed Indonesia that they were going to enter their territorial waters first.

  25. The Pav

    The Govt has been claiming the reduction in boats is due to the success of their policy. I have rather had the opinion that as noted in the article that it is a seasonal thing.

    Morrison has been getting away with this for months.

    Could some journo out there grow a pair and call him out on this instead of letting him get away with it.

    It would seem the ALP is to far up itself at the present to do this but it would be nice if the opposition could actually to do their job

  26. Rena Zurawel

    We should close all detention centres. We will save a lot of money and get rid of the people smugglers.
    The navy’s role is not to hunt people at the sea.
    It is a misuse of taxpayers’money.
    And, we should stick to the book of LAW. It won’t hurt.

  27. Aaron Shaw

    The boats have mostly slowed down or stopped at this time of year every year because of a little thing called the monsoon.
    “Boat season” begins in April. Desperate people do desperate things. The boats won’t stop.


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