New Australian premier Abbott's asylum plan needs Indonesian help

New Australian prime minister must convince key figures in Jakarta to play ball or his promised crackdown on asylum seekers may be doomed

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 September, 2013, 3:50am

Australia's new prime minister, Tony Abbott, is counting on a muscular approach to stem the tide of asylum seekers entering his country aboard flimsy boats.

But the signature policy that helped him win election this month may fail due to the indifference of Indonesian officers who are needed to help implement it, and remarks by his senior ministers that have upset their Indonesian counterparts.

A planned summit between the Australian premier and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, slated for September 30, will almost certainly yield a statement of support for Abbott.

But unless it is coupled with specific orders that compel Indonesia's police and immigration services to cooperate with Australian efforts, little progress will be made, according to Donald Greenlees, a Jakarta- based researcher at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

Under Abbott's plan, entitled Operation Sovereign Borders, Australia's navy would tow boats back to Indonesia. Abbott also plans to embed Australian police in Indonesian villages, buy up fishing boats to keep them from people-smugglers and pay locals for intelligence. All planks of the policy would require co-operation from both Jakarta and Indonesian officers on the ground.

"This issue experiences a friction of implementation," said Greenlees. "There is co-operation at the national level, and that's a good step, but then it needs explicit instruction to the people who have to carry it out."

Indonesia has seen a sudden rise in refugees arriving to the country in recent years. The number of refugees and asylum seekers jumped to more than 7,200 in 2012, an 80 per cent rise on 2011, according to the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR). Many seek to continue on to Australia.

Local police and other workers might see little reason to impede the onward journeys of the asylum seekers, who mainly come from Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka, said Greenlees.

"Opinion here is mixed. From the Indonesian point of view they think 'Why not? If they want to move on, let them'."

Convincing Indonesia's policymakers and implementers to help Abbott's plan to work will be no easy task. Recent comments by his senior ministers risk souring relations with Jakarta and making the task even harder.

Before taking over as Australia's foreign affairs minister on Wednesday, Julie Bishop said Australia would "work co-operatively with Indonesia where we need to".

But Bishop also suggested the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) was already collecting intelligence on would-be asylum seekers in Indonesia - an assertion that could place the IOM in a conflict of interest with member countries, which contribute to its budget. She also said on Monday that Australia was "not asking for Indonesia's permission, we're asking for their understanding".

Indonesian MP Tantowi Yahya, who sits on a key committee overlooking foreign affairs, on Wednesday called the asylum- seeker policy "offensive".

A planned panel discussion with foreign journalists that included the IOM, the chief of mission of the UNHCR and the Indonesian government's director general of multilateral affairs at the foreign ministry was postponed on Wednesday. The foreign ministry said the reason was a scheduling conflict.

Multiple phone calls and e-mails over three days to the IOM's Jakarta representative Denis Nihill, the UNHCR's Manuel Jordao and the spokesman for Indonesia's foreign ministry went unanswered.

"No one wants a bar of this right now," said a refugee-aid worker who didn't want himself or his organisation identified.

Greenlees says that Abbott needs to push for follow-up meetings at the ministerial and senior bureaucratic level, and keep public comments to a minimum while the process unfolds.

"Lower the public profile of the debate," Greenlees says. "The focus ought to be on steady, not rapid progress."

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse