“Its good politics to be seen to be ‘tough on people smugglers’ but it’s even tougher to acknowledge that we are locking up the wrong people.”
Opposition Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Julie Bishop’s visit last week to Jakarta proved a challenge as she explained to senior Indonesian ministers her leader’s policy of wanting to turn back the asylum seeker boats before they reach Christmas Island and dump the hapless passengers back on Indonesian soil.
The irony of Mr Abbott's policy is that privately, many Indonesian officials probably wish they could do exactly the same thing with the thousands of asylum seekers entering their country illegally each year.
Unlike Australia, which only has to protect one very big island with only one major entry point - Christmas Island - Indonesia has thousands of islands where people seeking a new life can chose to enter unnoticed.
Once they arrive in Indonesia - a country of 240 million people - asylum seekers can make their way to the eastern part of the archipelago with relative ease, and at very little cost.
The masterminds who arrange the boats to carry this human cargo towards Australia operate with complete ease in Jakarta, possibly with the support of a few senior officials from Indonesia's military or TNI; something that continues to frustrate the Indonesian government.
The task of then arranging a suitable boat and crew to undertake the hazardous journey is relatively easy. Thousands of beach-side fishing villages; hundreds of thousands of poor fishermen (and children) desperate for any additional money to feed their families, and close proximity to the final destination of Christmas Island ensures the arrangements can be finalised within a few days.
And at a local village level, some police officials are happy to turn a 'blind-eye' to these preparations in return for payment. On occasions police will actually facilitate the hiring of crew.
Corruption? Yes, but ask yourself this:
"If I was a policeman living in a remote and poor town in eastern Indonesia, earning $50.00 a week, and by 'looking the other way' I could receive enough money to send my three children to school for the next six months would I do it?”
It’s a question all of us here in Australia should ask ourselves.
The hiring of the crew offers great choice as many children aged from 11-18 spend much of their time working on boats as part of their daily lives. To be offered the opportunity to work on a boat, as a cook or deck-hand, that is ‘taking people to Christmas Island’ with a payment of $300.00 would provide a huge windfall for most families.
One such boy, Ali Yasmin was only 13 when he took the opportunity to work on one of these boats in 2009. Yasmin’s was six when his father had passed-away, and since then Yasmin was the head of the family with mum and his two sisters.
What Yasmin didn’t know was that at Christmas Island there were Australian Federal Police waiting to meet them and that he would be charged with ‘people smuggling’ – whatever that meant to a 13 year-old?
Today, Ali Yasmin is two years into a five year sentence at Albany’s maximum-security adult prison and, now aged 16, he shares his meals in the company of murderers, rapists and drug traffickers.
Back home in Eastern Indonesia Yasmin’s Mum has lost contact with her son along with their main means of financial support from fishing. Meanwhile, the masterminds who employed Yasmin are back in Jakarta, enjoying a drink at one of the city’s five-star hotels whilst arranging the next cargo of frightened and desperate people.
This explanation as to how a people smuggling operation is carried-out doesn't justify the practices that result in people travelling a much-too-dangerous journey to Australia by old boats manned by young and naive crews, but it does highlight just some of the complexities that both Indonesia and Australia face in dealing with the asylum seeker issue.
The Australian government now has over 400 young Indonesian fishermen clogging-up our already over-crowded jails around Australia, as they serve the mandatory five year sentences for people smuggling. Its good politics to be seen to be ‘tough on people smugglers’ but it’s even tougher to acknowledge that we are locking up the wrong people.
Mr. Abbott has sort to exploit the mess that our Government have created by saying he will 'turn back the boats'. This is simplistic thinking in the extreme, insensitive and lacking empathy toward our Indonesian neighbours, and ignores the very privileged position we as Australians enjoy as a sophisticated and advanced nation.
With the 2011 live cattle fiasco; the US marines being based in Darwin; the PM's ill-considered interference in case of the Australian boy on drug charges in Bali, and the jailing of Indonesian children in Australian maximum security prisons, the current Australian Government has done enough already to leave our northern neighbour worried about where we are heading on a range of regional foreign policy issues.
They certainly don't need the opposition leader to add to these worries.