When Julia Gillard visits Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) next month, both leaders will have far more in common than usual: Both are terribly unpopular within their own nations; they will both soon be leaving office and of course both agree that Tony Abbott’s ‘turn back the boats’ policy is completely unacceptable to the Indonesian government.
There is general agreement amongst government and expert commentators however, that a solution to this crisis must involve Indonesia. So we should, at the outset, acknowledge that Australia does not have a problem with Indonesian asylum seekers. No Indonesians are seeking ‘asylum’ to live in Australia.
Ironically, the only Indonesians who are being held here in Australia are the 450 fishermen and children who have been used as ‘pawns’ by people smuggler syndicates who take these fishing boats to bring the self-proclaimed asylum seekers to Australia. The Indonesian fishermen do not represent any threat whatsoever to Australians, and would be delighted if they could be sent home today instead of languishing in our maximum security prisons at a cost to our community of $2,000 a week for each person.
The tragedy is that the devastating policy failure of our current government has exacerbated a problem for Indonesia who now has thousands of so-called asylum seekers spread all through the archipelago. Make no mistake; they are in Indonesia for only one reason: Australia is an easy and desirable destination, and our northern neighbour makes an ideal transit point.
Indonesia must however, share some blame for the dramatic increase in people choosing to travel to Australia by the Indonesian route, as former generals, police and some government officials have joined with the people smuggler masterminds in developing a very successful-and profitable-industry in human trafficking; much to the frustration of their national government.
Notwithstanding the culpability of these (very few) Indonesians, the reality is that both Indonesia and Australia face the same problem, and it will only be with Indonesia’s co-operation and support that this crisis can be addressed and resolved by an incoming Abbott Government, by working with Indonesia to develop a long-term strategy that will benefit both countries and the genuine refugees.
This could involve developing a joint processing facility, funded by Australia and operated and serviced by Indonesia, in their eastern provinces where there is ample land and jobs are desperately needed. Such a facility would help both Australia and Indonesia with the holding and processing of all asylum seekers, and also act as a major deterrent to those considering a perilous journey to Australia.
Such a proposal is nothing to do with racism or discrimination, but rather about policy and also being humane. Travelling to Australia via the people smugglers’ route is very dangerous and places people in an extremely vulnerable position of being exploited, if not killed.
Also, it should be the Australian Government that decides who comes to live in this country, and those wanting to migrate to - or seek refuge in - Australia should be subjected to all the appropriate checks to ensure they have the best opportunity to integrate into our society and embrace our way-of-life, ethos and value system.
All my years of living and working in Asia and other parts of the world has taught me the benefits of true multiculturalism that has served Australia incredibly well. The contribution the Greek and Italian immigrants made to this country for example, has changed the way we live, eat and play for the better.
Other immigrants, including Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and Indonesian‘s have also made an enormous contribution to our society. Over 40% of our vegetable industry in WA is now operated by hard-working Vietnamese families, and Asian business people have built industries here that export produce and goods back into their homeland and other parts of the region thus generating a wide variety of foreign exports for Australia.
Increasingly, boat arrivals now bring people who are no longer refugees or true asylum seekers, but rather immigrants who wish to enter Australia under their own terms; not our government’s, and that is unfair to those using the formal channels, whilst placing enormous pressure on, not only Australia’s border protection services, but also those of Indonesia.
We are creating a security, financial and administrative nightmare for our country as we place many unidentified and unqualified people into our community, often with no means of support or a future. And when we consider that since 2008 almost 45,000 people have chosen the people smugglers’ pathway to Australia, a community ‘time bomb’ is potentially in the making.
Meanwhile here in Australia, whilst our house (and border protection policy) is being taken over by people who are now no longer true asylum seekers but rather immigrants wanting access to Australia on their own terms, we are out on the front lawn ‘beating up’ on our next door neighbours in Indonesia, blaming them for a problem primarily not of their making and in the process, locking up their ‘family’ members in our already overcrowded jails.
No wonder we are in such a complete border security mess.
Ross Taylor AM is the chairman of the WA-based Indonesia Institute (Inc).
This article was originally published in The West Australian Newspaper on Monday 24th June 2013.