John McBeth – Straits Times
Two years ago, a couple who thought they were renting out their West Java seaside villa for a family gathering belatedly discovered the tenant was a people smuggler, using the house as a way-station for about 50 well-heeled Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers.
Located on a small tidal inlet near the mouth of the Sunda Strait, it was an ideal place to keep the group while arrangements were made for a fishing boat to take them on the 500 km trip across the Indian Ocean to Australia’s Christmas Island.
Local police were complicit in the plan, but a dispute over money led to the house being raided – and then turned into a makeshift detention facility. Over the following week, it was trashed before the detainees were moved to a more secure place.
The incident only underlines the continuing difficulty of finding a way to stop or even slow the wave of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and now increasingly, Iran, journeying to what they see as the promised land.
In fact, experienced refugee officials say there is no solution. More troubling, the flow may even increase, particularly when international troops finally withdraw from Afghanistan and government security forces struggle to keep the Taliban at bay.
Many of those new refugees are likely to be Hazaras, Persian-speaking Shi’ites from Afghanistan’s mountainous central region who are often persecuted for their beliefs in Sunni-majority areas. An estimated 50,000 are now living in Australia.
Almost all the asylum seekers from the Middle East and South Asia fly by scheduled airlines into Malaysia, already the home of more than 100,000 illegal migrants who scrape out a living working in menial jobs. From there, they are smuggled across the Malacca Strait into Sumatra.
While thousands avoid official screening, many are subsequently registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with about 60 percent kept in initial detention and the rest released into community housing.
Once there, immigration, police and local officials, some in places as far away as Southeast Sulawesi, West Timor and East Kalimantan, collude with people smugglers in the lucrative business of facilitating their onward passage.
Like it or not, Australia’s attraction is a well-developed primary and secondary appeal process and a strong advocacy lobby. In a great number of cases, the only real obstacle to being accepted is the lengthy time it takes to get a security clearance.
There is no international off-take, as there was with the Indochinese refugees flooding into Southeast Asia four decades ago. This year, only 600 asylum seekers have voluntarily returned to their home countries.
Even during the exodus of boat people from Vietnam, the point was reached in the early 1980s where officials were forced to acknowledge that a great majority of the so-called refugees were in fact economic migrants.
But it was hard to call them that when they were braving storms and brutal attacks by fishermen-turned-pirates to find a better life. The risks aren’t much different today, except that Indonesian fishermen now crew the rickety boats carrying the quaintly called “irregular maritime arrivals.”
At least 640 asylum seekers have died at sea in the past three years, including 203 who drowned when their boat sank off East Java last December. In 2000 and 2001, 703 were lost in two incidents alone.
The issue continues to roil Australian politics like no other, with more than 200 boats and 13,600 asylum seekers arriving in the two years since Prime Minister Julia Gillard vainly sought to establish an offshore processing centre on Timor Leste.
“One of the great problems is everyone is looking for a silver bullet, rather than a layered response,” says New Zealander Denis Nihill, the taciturn chief of mission of the International Organization for Migration in Jakarta.
Everything has been tried. When the asylum seekers were being stashed on remote Nauru Island in 2001, the flow of new arrivals almost stopped. But such was the human cost of incarceration that the program was abandoned six years later.
Timor Leste, Fiji and Palau have all turned down proposals to host offshore detention centers and, at this point anyway, Australia has been unsuccessful in trying to work out a political deal with Malaysia and Indonesia.
Meanwhile, with 6,000 new arrivals in Australia this year and another 6,000 registered asylum seekers alone waiting in Indonesia, it is obvious the loosely connected people-smuggling pipeline is working smoothly.
The Australian authorities now even receive phone calls from would-be refugees when they leave Indonesian ports telling them that they’re coming. Opposition leader Tony Abbott wants to turn them back. That will happen only if he is looking for a fight with Jakarta.
Perhaps Australia’s only hope may lie with Indonesia’s security agencies, which are growing increasingly agitated at the way asylum seekers have almost free rein in a country where all foreigners are supposed to report to police wherever they travel.
Efforts are being made to take the Immigration Department out of the equation, but it is unclear whether it will lead to the opening of a proper detention center – perhaps the old Galang Island refugee camp, south of Singapore, home to a shifting population of 250,000 Vietnamese boat people between 1979 and 1995.
While Australia would no doubt turn cartwheels and there would be a dramatic reduction in asylum-seeker traffic, it would leave Indonesia wearing the problem more than it does now.
That alone makes it highly unlikely.
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times