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Be wary of 'Indonesia solution'

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8 November 2009 20:23

Elaine Pearson is deputy director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. This article is cross-posted to the Jakarta Globe. 

In January, Australians saw shocking photos of young, emaciated men washing up on the shores of Sumatra. Australian television showed these Rohingyas (pictured), members of a Muslim ethnic minority systematically mistreated by Burma's military regime, describing how Thai authorities beat them and pushed them back out to sea. Video footage captured the Thai navy appearing to tow the men out to sea in their rickety boats. The world was horrified.

Fast forward to last week, when boat people were once again on our TV screens. On 18 October, an Australian naval vessel rescued a boatload of Sri Lankans in international waters (though Indonesia's search and rescue area) and transferred them to a customs boat, which is now trying to set them ashore in Indonesia.

What happened to the Rohingya earlier this year should make Australians think twice about the 'Indonesian Solution.' Australia's policy toward asylum seekers should be based on humane treatment and protecting the vulnerable, not politically expedient efforts to airbrush asylum seekers from television screens by herding them into remote camps.

In January and February almost 400 Rohingya and Bangladeshis landed on Indonesia's shores. Despite the decades of discrimination and abuse faced by Rohingya in Burma, the Indonesian Government initially claimed they were all 'economic migrants' and threatened to deport them. It even blocked access to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It took until April for a team that included the UN refugee agency even to begin to process their claims.

In May, the team reported to journalists that most were Rohingyas who had legitimate asylum claims. Up till now, they have been detained in squalid makeshift camps. In one, where reports emerged of guards beating camp residents, many have escaped and disappeared. The others remain in limbo, but no longer in the media spotlight, ten months later they are largely forgotten.

When the Rohingya stories hit the headlines earlier this year, regional leaders held emergency discussions on the fringes of the ASEAN Summit. At the time, Human Rights Watch called for a regional solution to address refugees. Lip service was paid to this goal, but instead the Rohingya were relegated to the Bali Process, a regional scheme driven by Australia and Indonesia with the main goal of preventing people smuggling, human trafficking and other transnational crime.

On 20 February Australia's foreign minister, Stephen Smith, in a joint news conference with the Indonesian foreign minister in Sydney, 'welcome(d) very much that the Bali Process will deal with the Rohingyas issue.' But by treating the Rohingya as smuggled migrants instead of asylum seekers, Australia and others fail to address the human rights abuses from which the Rohingya flee in Burma and the need for refugee protection in host countries.

The same issues are arising with the Sri Lankan boat people. Sri Lanka has just come out of a brutal armed conflict, where war crimes were committed by both government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Ethnic Tamils bore the brunt of the abuses from both sides.  Since the war ended in May, a quarter of a million Tamil civilians have been unlawfully locked up in camps.

Some media reports allege the 78 Sri Lankans were recognized as refugees years ago in Indonesia and were awaiting resettlement. If true, this is further evidence that Australia and Indonesia should treat the asylum seekers as people with rights, and not merely as the smugglers' cargo.

If Australia is to exert pressure on Jakarta, it should be to persuade Indonesia to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, something Indonesia has pledged to do since 2004. In the meantime, Indonesia offers no long-term solution for refugees. While Australia does resettle a good proportion of refugees from Indonesia, the process is slow and the numbers are very small — only 448 admitted from 2001 to the present.

Australia did the right thing in rescuing the 78 Sri Lankans. The Rudd Government should now do the next right thing in processing their asylum claims, rather than shunting them around as a symbol to show the Australian public that it can be as tough as its predecessor.

Photo by Flickr user Austcare, used under a Creative Commons license.

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