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

Friday, August 03, 2012


Welcome to Transit Indonesia Year    

The NIMBY syndrome is well known in Australian politics.  ‘Not In My Back Yard’ refers to electors’ demands for governments to relocate prisons, landfills, airports and other undesirable but essential services in someone else’s suburb.

The same thinking is alive in the toxic asylum-seeker debate Down Under.

So far this year more than 6,000 asylum seekers have arrived, mainly from the Middle East claiming sanctuary from war and persecution.  They’ve been using Indonesian fishers as ferrymen to Christmas Island, an Australian territory.

About 4,000 boat people are in mandatory detention, but even this system – like the hazardous sea voyage that’s taken hundreds of lives – doesn’t deter.

Outgoing Human Rights Commissioner Catherine Branson commented:  "As far as I'm aware, our system is the strictest in the Western world and there's no evidence that it works.”

Here in Indonesia an estimated 10,000 are waiting for third nation settlement, some supported by the UN High Commission for Refugees, others in hiding.  Overcrowded Indonesia doesn’t want them and they don’t want to be in Indonesia, fearing police brutality, local hostility and long delays.

There’s been a surge of boats leading to the fasting month of Ramadhan – seven last week. (w/ending 21 July) There’s also been a spate of arrests of asylum seekers and officials illegally providing embarkation assistance along Java’s south coast. It seems the government is now responding to Australian pleas for Indonesia to better police exit points.

What about entry ports? How the foreigners get through Soekarno-Hatta in such numbers with suspect documents is a great mystery.  Australians visiting the Archipelago must have visas and usually can’t board planes without return tickets.

The Labor government wants some refugees who get to Christmas Island, less than 400 kilometers south of Jakarta, sent to camps in Malaysia for processing. 

The Liberal opposition wants them shipped to the Micronesian island of Nauru because Kuala Lumpur, like Jakarta, hasn’t signed the UN Refugee Convention. 

An earlier attempt to involve Timor Leste failed.  Cynics might assume most favor an ABA solution – Anywhere But Australia. 

The Greens, who hold the balance of power, are demanding processing on Australian soil and the refugee quota to be lifted from 13,750 to 25,000.

Others urge Australia to face global realities. Australia’s Refugee Council, an NGO, says the country recognized only 0.56 per cent of the world’s asylum seekers.

The latest solution-de-jour is for Australia to pay for processing in Indonesia.  This plan comes from refugee advocates’ proposals to a three-man expert committee set up by the government to try and break the political logjam.  Almost 70 submissions have been lodged. 

The committee’s report is expected next month (Aug), but its findings won’t bind the political parties.  Their responses show they’ve already dug deep defensive trenches to repel fresh thinking.

A Labor Party splinter group called Labor for Refugees wants more diplomats sent to Jakarta and the Embassy to handle asylum claims.

The Perth-based NGO Indonesia Institute suggested a “major detention processing center” be built in Kupang, creating jobs and injecting life into East Nusa Tenggara’s moribund economy.

This isn’t totally left-field thinking.  After the Vietnam War thousands of anti-communists fled south on little boats.  Many were temporarily housed on Pulau Galang, an Indonesian island close to Singapore. 

Times change. The Indonesian government can no longer throttle public comment or crush angry responses – as shown in mob attacks on the Ahmadiyah sect and Shiite Muslims.  This group is well represented among asylum seekers, particularly Hazaras from Pakistan and Central Afghanistan. 

Could these Australian relocation ideas work?  The more important question is: Would Indonesia agree? The plans have been conceived in isolation without input from the Indonesian people.  Even if the government agreed, at what political cost?

In May President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was bruised when he approved a five-year cut to Australian drug smuggler Schapelle Corby’s 20-year sentence. 

Although a legal attack by the anti-drug agency Granat failed, it showed how democracy has advanced when a president’s actions can be so publicly challenged – impossible under Soeharto. 

The signal is clear:  Ministers may make deals with their foreign mates in exclusive hotels  – but if the majority in the gritty streets outside are hostile the pledges are meaningless.

Hungry and homeless citizens living on less than US $2 (Rp 19,000) a day, peering through wire fences at Sri Lankans and Iraqis being safely housed, well fed and enjoying free health care courtesy of Australian taxpayers might not see the sense and justice in this transit lounge arrangement.

Processing in Jakarta? Imagine Jl Rasuna Said blocked by thousands of foreigners clamouring to get into the Australian Embassy fortress to lodge asylum claims.  The building is already too small to handle current business and expansion is planned,

Some might be inclined to show their displeasure at the ballot box in 2014; hotheads may not be prepared to wait that long. 

Johnny Hutauruk, deputy head of the Human Trafficking, Refugees and Asylum Seekers unit told the Sydney Morning Herald: ''On the one hand we have to guard our sovereignty - we don't want too many of these people here - but we also must respect their human rights,

''There are some refugees in Puncak (West Java) and you see cultural conflicts between refugees and locals … they bring with them their habits and their culture, which is perhaps not in tune with local culture and traditions.''

Being Indonesian, the polite Mr Hutauruk is less blunt than his southern neighbors – but he’s saying the same thing: NIMBY.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 2 August 2012) 

See also Asia Times On Line:

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