How should we deal with uninvited guests who say they are victims of oppression in their homelands yet who only want to pass through on their way to the land of their dreams? This question needs an answer because thousands of people from the Middle East are now in Indonesia just looking for a way into Australia.
This is clearly an international problem. The United Nations has a special commission, the UNHCR, to handle these refugees. The UNHCR checks the stories of asylum seekers, and if they are justified, visas are given so they can leave for Australia.
Unfortunately this system moves slowly, and the process can take years. Far more people register than those who get visas. So what should be done with them while they are waiting?
Many people are impatient. Last year, around 4,500 asylum seekers crowded onto small boats and set sail. Not all of them made it. Several boats sank, taking their passengers with them. Some vessels were detained by Australian officials, and around 200 crews of Indonesian boats, are now on trial for 'people smuggling.'
The Australian government has long been asking Indonesia to prevent this 'people smuggling.' The Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs has established a special work unit to address the problem. But how to prevent people who want to reach the land of their dreams, selling everything they own in their homelands?
To add to the problem, Indonesia does not have a satisfactory legal framework for dealing with asylum seekers. It has not yet signed the international convention on the status of refugees, and does not differentiate in a legal sense between refugees and asylum seekers. They are also treated as illegal immigrants, who are automatically detained and deported to their countries of origin as fast as possible.
This is dangerous for asylum seekers from authoritarian states because they will be arrested as soon as they arrive back in their countries, or even executed for disagreeing with government policies. Deporting such people to be oppressed again by the authorities is not in accordance with Indonesia's Pancasila state ideology.
And even if they are detained, this must be executed according to international standards. The UNHCR provides assistance by way of 'accommodation' costs, but is it right to detain people who present no threat to the people of Indonesia, and who really only need to wait for their asylum cases to be decided?
The governments of Indonesia and Australia, and the UNHCR need to sit down together to find a humane solution. The UNHCR and Australia must be given a definite time limit in determining the status of asylum seekers. This process needs to be transparent, and Indonesia could offer itself to be an 'international monitor' to ensure there is no discrimination from Australia towards these asylum seekers from South Asia and the Middle East.
There are grounds for suspicions of discrimination. Although Australia today claims to support multiculturalism, the history of its immigration policy is characterized by the prioritization of immigrants from western countries. The tough political debate over immigrants by boat from the Middle East is also suspect because an Australian study has shown that the reasons for asylum of the majority of refugees from Afghanistan and the Middle East have been justified. So, they should be accepted.
The number of asylum seekers is relatively small compared to the number of illegal immigrants arriving on tourist or study visas who then overstay. Around 5,000 British citizens are suspected of doing this every year, making up about 10 percent of all those who overstay.
Indonesia must not ignore its responsibilities as a world citizen. The government should take note of the recommendation by the National Human Rights Commission to immediately submit a bill to ratify the 1950 convention on the status of refugees as well as its 1967 protocols. This would bring the handling of asylum seekers up to international standards, and would reinforce Indonesia's negotiating position with both the UNHCR and Australia.
This in turn would mean a solution to the problem of these uninvited guests who only pass through on their way to the land of dreams. They would be welcomed and given a definite time for processing. Those who succeed would be invited to continue their journey onward, while those who fail to qualify can be deported to a safe country.
Only in this way will people seeking the land of their dreams avoid becoming victims of people-smuggling mafia.
No. 42/12, June 13, 2012