The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Australian politicians have blood on their hands. So do their Indonesian counterparts.

It’s the blood of hundreds of asylum seekers who have perished in the Killing Seas trying to get from the Archipelago to Australia. They lost their lives because the politicians have failed to find a humane solution to the people smuggling curse.

Maybe 200 women, children and men drowned last weekend when a grossly overloaded boat capsized in heavy seas, 30 kilometers off the south coast of East Java. Eight died last month in a similar sinking.

The latest tragedy comes a year after 50 people perished when their flimsy wooden boat smashed into the cliffs of Christmas Island. This Australian territory is just 360 kilometers south of Jakarta. It’s used to process asylum seekers.

Is there anyone more base than a human trafficker motivated by greed, indifferent to care and devoid of responsibility? They pack their customers into rickety craft like 18th century slave traders. The boats’ engines frequently fail. Few carry lifesaving equipment. The crews are often incompetent kids.

Last year’s Christmas Island sinking involved SIEV (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel) 221. When it came within sight of land the captain reportedly sailed back to Indonesia on another ship.

Equally culpable are the officials who help get the Afghans, Iranians and others through Indonesia and onto floating coffins knowing the awful dangers.

When I last visited Prigi in the East Java regency of Trenggalek where the latest victims apparently set sail, I was called out by the local police chief asking who I was and what I was doing.

Prigi is a small tourist resort known for its white beach. I was there on a quiet holiday with Indonesians. We were behaving properly and bothering no one. Several locals had alerted the police to the presence of an outsider.

Survivors of this week’s sinking told reporters they were taken to the coast from Jakarta in four buses. The arrival of so many foreigners could not have gone unnoticed by the police, the army, the harbormaster, local government officials and the general public.

Either human trafficking has become so blatant it no longer warrants attention, or money is changing wallets for men in uniform to study their bootlaces.

Press accounts in Australia allege that corrupt officials in Soekarno-Hatta were charging $US500 (Rp 4.5 million) to let individuals without visas through airport controls.

In March last year Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told the Australian Parliament that laws to criminalize people smuggling were being given top priority in the Republic.

But the laws were not passed till May this year and it’s clear they are not being policed. Australian journalists based in Jakarta have written of seeing notorious people smugglers doing business in the capital under the noses of the police.

The issue is huge in Australia though of less importance in Indonesia, which hasn’t signed the UN convention on refugees. But authorities still have to uphold local laws

In Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott have spent the past year squabbling over solutions to the problem, each accusing the other on being soft on border protection.

Canberra tried to do a deal with Kuala Lumpur for asylum seekers to be processed in Malaysia. The plan foundered when refugee advocates successfully appealed to the Australian High Court.

The Liberal opposition wants a return to processing on the Micronesian island of Nauru. This was the so called Pacific Solution used when John Howard was PM, but scrapped when Labor took office in 2007.

The impasse has encouraged people smugglers to boost their nefarious trade; Australian immigration is now forecasting 600 arrivals a month. Though small by international standards the facts aren’t damming fears of a flood.

Despite the terrible loss it’s unlikely the risks will deter. In 2001 SIEV X sank killing 353. The Great South Land’s democracy, fairness, welfare systems, free health and education, high wages and legal aid are powerful magnets to the persecuted and those seeking better futures.

Although there’s great public anger in Australia towards the boat people – including from penniless refugees who waited years in overseas camps for invitations to resettle – there’s also significant support. A report by the respected think tank Centre for Policy Development said Australia’s refugee and asylum policies were “inhumane, ineffective and expensive.”

Australia, a nation built by migrants, has an annual quota of 13,750 refugees. The uninvited, dubbed ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ by opponents, pay traffickers up to $US 5,000 for one-way tickets.

Australia has harsh laws against people smugglers, but these seldom snare the czars. Instead the cowards get poor Indonesian fishermen to do the dirty work, favoring teenagers who are sent home if under 17.

George Newhouse is an Australian lawyer acting for survivors of the SIEV 221 disaster. He’s been quoted saying 1000 people had drowned while politicians used asylum seekers as political footballs.

''This disgraceful state of affairs is the result of both political parties being unable to come to a bipartisan agreement and to develop an offshore processing policy to deal with asylum seekers,'' he told The Age newspaper.

''If our leaders had an ounce of decency - both of them - they would get together and formulate a serious policy to deal with the issue.''

(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 December 2011. Re-run in On-Line Opinion 23 Dec.)