Hundreds of lives perish while politicians bicker
By US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Junior’s definition of leadership, the politicians of Australia and Southeast Asia have failed appallingly. They’ve failed because they haven’t found a humanitarian solution to the issue of asylum seekers moving through the region and dying on their way to Australia.
If the leaders were public servants, they’d be prosecuted for gross negligence. Because they are politicians, they blame others.
The latest proof of their inability to meet the challenge is the loss during World Refugee Week (which ended June 23) of maybe 90 souls in the seas south of Java. In the two years before this latest tragedy at least 250 people drowned trying to get to Australia. There may well be more. Journalists from the ABC TV program Four Corners claim a boat with 97 people on board disappeared in November 2010, unrecorded by authorities.
Added to the horror of death at sea is the appalling anguish suffered by the victims’ families, desperate people who gambled their relatives for a better future and lost. They’ll be crippled by grief for the rest of their lives for making that flawed decision.
Before this latest catastrophe, more than 4,000 people had made it to Australian territory this year, usually landing at Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, just 360 kilometers south of Jakarta.
Asylum seekers who come from Sri Lanka allege government persecution through links with the secessionist Tamil Tigers. Middle Eastern refugees have been fleeing war or religious persecution. Persian-speaking Hazaras, mainly Shiite Muslims from Afghanistan, Pakistan and neighboring nations have featured prominently.
Most refugee boats set off from Indonesia. People smuggling is illegal, however the number who openly use the Republic as a transit lounge between their homeland and Australia indicate the police aren’t doing their job properly and their political masters are unconcerned.
Others are setting sail from India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. The Australian Federal Police are supposed to be working with regional authorities to detect the asylum seekers before they embark. Though police seldom catch the evildoers, journalists have found the people traffickers who openly organize the boats, charging thousands of dollars for the risky trip.
Domestic politics in the countries along the route taken by the distressed seeking safety and a better life, plus a few devious criminals and economic refugees, have maintained the tragedy. The comment most commonly heard among Indonesians is that this is an Australian problem. Indonesia hasn’t signed the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocols, so is perceived to have no responsibility beyond pointing asylum seekers towards their destination.
To his credit Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has been pushing for a regional solution. Doubtless to his dismay, no one seems to have given serious ear to his suggestion, although the Australian government has been toying with new policies. One was to send 800 fresh arrivals to Malaysian refugee camps in return for 4,000 people deemed genuine refugees and deserving of third country settlement.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard (who was born overseas like one-in-four Australians) said this would break the smugglers’ business model. They’d run out of customers if the boat people knew they’d spend years in Malaysia waiting to be processed.
However the plan was scuttled by the High Court. It ruled that Malaysia was an inappropriate destination because refugee rights could not be guaranteed. The Australian government might be able to legislate around the Court’s decision. But it would need a clear majority in Parliament.
“Border Security” is a major issue in Australian politics. The Liberal Party Opposition wants asylum seekers sent to Nauru in the South Pacific, or Manus Island off Papua New Guinea. Those proved to be genuine refugees would be given three-year temporary protection visas so they could return home once the threats and dangers
According to the UNHCR there are there are 15.4 million refugees worldwide, with 837,500 seeking asylum. Last year Australia took close to 14,000 under its humanitarian program. The majority were selected by Australian officials working with the UNHCR in refugee camps around the world.
But almost 5,000 came by boat — in other words they were self-selected, able to make the hazardous journey on rickety Indonesian fishing boats. They had the money to pay the people smugglers, disadvantaging the patient and maybe more deserving poor waiting in camps overseas.
Left-wing Australians who previously supported a more liberal refugee program and used the courts to cripple government plans for offshore processing are rethinking their position as the boats keep coming — and sinking. Revelations that people smugglers have masqueraded as asylum seekers, cleared by immigration and given permanent residence, have also polluted earlier beliefs that all boat people are genuine refugees.
Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser has savaged government and opposition for the way they’re mishandling the situation. In a major speech this month (June) he said: “Our treatment of refugees, and the poisonous debate engaged in by our major political parties has done Australia much harm throughout our region.”
His comments come when Australia is trying to reposition itself in Asia as a friend, trader and security partner. Though not a moral leader. What would Martin Luther King Junior have said?
The writer is a journalist based in Malang, East Java.