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Mishandling Indonesia


Asylum seeker boatFollowing the interception late last week of an asylum seeker vessel approximately 43 nautical miles south of Java, Operation Sovereign Borders Commander Angus Campbell told media that 'all people have been accounted for'. When pressed by journalists for further detail, the Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison simply reiterated, 'The Commander has made it very clear ... that all the persons on the vessel have been accounted for.'

At the time that Morrison and Campbell were stubbornly sticking to this empty terminology, these persons had in fact for many hours already been safely on board an Australian border protection vessel. Why didn't they say so? Isn't it appropriate promptly to inform the public when a maritime rescue operation has been successful?

The use of the evasive term 'accounted for' caused me great concern. There are five known cases of asylum seekers drowning off their own boats, after their boats had been taken into custody by Australian border protection vessels. During the 2001 Operation Relex period, there was SIEV 10 (a fatal sinking from a cooking stove fire) and SIEV 7 (unexplained deaths during towback). SIEV 4 was a near-death case of a boat that foundered without warning with all its passengers and an Australian boarding party from HMAS Adelaide on board.

Under Labor: SIEV 36 exploded with an Australian boarding party on board, causing deaths. And on 13 and 16 July 2013, there were two more events, SIEV 784 and SIEV 794, involving deaths from boats already in Australian custody. It is reasonable to conclude that people from these boats are never truly safe until offloaded either onto a safe Australian vessel or at Christmas Island.

The next day, Morrison issued an embarrassing clarification on what had happened to the (as he now admitted) 'rescued' passengers: 'In the best interests of the safety of the passengers and crew of the rescued vessel and the Australian vessel that has been rendering assistance, earlier this morning I requested Lieut-General Campbell to transfer the persons rescued ... to Christmas Island for rapid onward transfer to Manus Island or Nauru.'

By this time, there had been extensive Australian media reporting sourced from Jakarta on what had happened since the boat had sent its first distress call to Australian authorities, reporting engine failure, when it was 43 miles from Java, in international waters and in the Indonesian SAR zone which extends to Christmas Island.

An Australian vessel went to inspect, and asked Indonesia to take back the boat or its passengers. Indonesia declined, giving various reasons. When HMAS Ballarat first inspected the boat, it found it initially seaworthy and sailed away. The engine subsequently failed irreparably. The people — understood to be about 56 — were then removed to the safety of ACV Ocean Protector at a point around 60 nautical miles from Indonesia.

There then ensued many hours of diplomatic standoff, resolved finally by unusually firm public language from a spokesman for the senior Indonesian minister now in charge of the matter, Djoko Suyanto, Indonesian coordinating minister for Legal, Political and Security Affairs. Suyanto's spokesman Agus Barnas said the government's policy was that Indonesia should no longer accept asylum seekers from Australia. Barnas told The Guardian:

From what I've been told, the boat was fine and they were not in danger ... If that's the case, then we reject it. We don't want Indonesia to be a dumping ground, but we don't want Australia to accuse us of not doing anything. We want to respect Australia. At least for the time being we will not accept them.

Strong words. The diplomatic warning signs should have been clear to Morrison and OSB many weeks ago. As far back as 29 September, a senior Indonesian academic Hikmahanto Juwana commented to the Jakarta Post that the Indonesian Government had come to the view that BASARNAS (the Indonesian search and rescue agency) was acting as Australia's 'paid agent', receiving illegal funds from and working for the Australian government in regard to the handling of refugees and asylum seekers.

The article was a strong signal that the Indonesian government had lost confidence in BASARNAS and that Australia should not try to use BASARNAS's statutory maritime rescue role to process boat turnbacks or passenger returns. Two passenger returns had been allowed as a diplomatic courtesy on the eve of Tony Abbott's first visit to Jakarta as Australia's prime minister. None have been allowed since.

On 9 November, Juwana commented on the latest incident, saying that governmental relations between the two countries would now only worsen. He said the atmosphere of distrust sparked over issues of wiretapping and asylum seekers 'had strained relations indefinitely ... Only by addressing the issues openly can relations improve.'

Such Australian stubbornness has set back relations. Australia has behaved like an importunate suitor who would not take a lady's polite face-saving rejection for an answer, pressing ahead to the point where Indonesia had to say very firmly and publicly 'We will not tolerate this any longer.'

Labor predictably has been making a political meal of the mishandled affair. But neither Bill Shorten nor Richard Marles has shown any sympathy or kind words for the rescued asylum seekers at the centre of the story. No doubt Labor is equally sceptical as the Coalition as to the authenticity of the distress signals in this case. Labor may not wish to remember the discomfiting details of how 1100 people died at sea under Labor's border protection watch, when similar scepticism and dilatoriness sometimes had fatal consequences.

It's a sad and embarrassing episode. Australian politicians from both parties continue to dehumanise asylum seekers in distress at sea.

There is one silver lining. From what we know, the on-water rescue-at-sea response of HMAS Ballarat and ACV Ocean Protector was correct. They did not leave asylum seekers in situations of danger on their unsafe boat after Australian interception and inspection. For this, we should be thankful.

Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin's most recent book is Reluctant Rescuers (2012). His previous publication on refugee boat tragedy — A Certain Maritime Incident — was the recipient of a NSW Premier's literary award in 2005.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Scott Morrison, Angus Campbell, Basarnas



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Existing comments

The recent incident off Java you refer to and the disagreement over asylum seeker policy between the two countries shows a fault line in their international relations which may be being highlighted by certain elements in Indonesia because of forthcoming elections there. As a former ambassador you would know there is far more to relations between the two countries than this recent spat. There are, I think, more serious issues of long term consequence to the two countries. I would not wish to underplay the horrific world refugee problem, which will have long term international consequences for many countries, including Australia. The refugee situation in the USA and Europe in terms of numbers and logistics dwarfs what is happening to us. The UN is stretched to its limits attempting to deal with the worldwide problem, which includes millions living in refugee camps with little perceivable possibility of change to their situation. At the back of many politicians' and peoples' minds, both here and overseas, is the fear this problem will snowball and become unmanageable. Perhaps it already has. Unless this psychological issue is addressed the situation(s) you so meticulously chronicle will continue as normal. Aye, there's the rub.

Edward F | 13 November 2013  

While I can accept what Edward F says about the wider nature of RI/OZ relationships, the seeming inability of either Abbott or Morrison to negotiate or compromise, and their consequential combative response to any obstruction suggests that this problem will get much worse before it gets better.

Ginger Meggs | 13 November 2013  

Many thanks for the audio of this article - i find it most distressing that Assulym Seekers are being treated so inhumanly. Please Australia accept these people and treat them with respect.

Aitr | 13 November 2013  

There is a part of every individual's psyche which differentiates between "us" and "them". This faculty does promote cohesiveness within the group but also puts up barriers against outsiders. There is also group psychology where this part of the group psyche operates in much the same way. Here you have, I believe, the reason Australians and others, both individuals and communities, may be cold and unaccepting towards refugees and others who appear to threaten their patch. Whether the threat is real is another question: it is perceived as real and things move on inexorably from there. We are talking individual and group psychology here: not morality. In fact, talk about morality which does not reach through to the deep roots of the problem goes nowhere and leaves us with the same situation. Where do we go from here? There needs to be a way of getting through these psychologically barriers. Perhaps art, music and the old style peaceful marches and demonstrations may, over time, work their magic.

Edward F | 13 November 2013  

The fault lies entirely on the Australian public who elected the government they've chosen. More than half of us have decided that we're not party to any humanitarian act under any circumstance. For this we should all hang our heads in shame.

Alex Njoo | 13 November 2013  

"Indonesia had to say very firmly and publicly 'We will not tolerate this any longer.'" - hang on, you are completely ignoring that fact that Indonesia is a staging post for illegal immigration, the boats are coming from there! Why is it OK for Indonesia to just wipe their hands and say it's our problem when boats reach us after leaving their shores, but not OK for us to say "Stop sending these boats our way"? Indonesia is admitting these illegals through their airports knowing full well they are heading to Australia. Indonesia is corrupt and complicit with the global people smuggling racket, which exploits the soft minded values of compassionate Western fools like us.

JD | 20 November 2013  

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