Jakarta May Lock Up Boatpeople

Jakarta may lock up boatpeople

Stephen Fitzpatrick, Jakarta correspondent
From: The Australian
July 23, 2010 12:00AM

AUSTRALIA might be asked to fund detention centres in Indonesia to help Jakarta deter asylum-seekers from using the nation as a staging point.

Jakarta's plan, which would lock up all asylum-seekers currently free in the community, comes amid pressure from Julia Gillard for a regional solution to the politically explosive problem.

The Australian has learnt that Indonesian officials are considering a plan that would end the country's practice of allowing asylum-seekers who have been assessed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to live in the community, where they have easy access to boats that will take them to Australia to seek asylum.

The Australian government has been in discussions with countries in the region as it seeks a co-ordinated response to the asylum-seeker problem and to spread the burden that has previously fallen on Australia.

More than 140 asylum boats have arrived in Australian waters since Labor took office in 2007, filling Christmas Island beyond its capacity and forcing the government to spill asylum-seekers to the mainland in growing numbers. The Prime Minister announced a plan this month to process asylum-seekers offshore, first suggesting East Timor as a possible base for a centre.

However, the proposal met opposition from the fledging nation's government and a frosty reception from neighbouring countries.

In Jakarta last week, the Indonesian government said it wanted to have further talks with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith at the ASEAN meeting in Hanoi this week about Ms Gillard's regional processing plans.

Indonesia is concerned that Ms Gillard did not provide advance warning of her plan to establish a processing facility in East Timor, but talks have been unable to take place because the calling of the federal election placed the government in caretaker mode.

The Indonesian detention plan has been laid out at the highest levels of the country's Immigration Department.

It would directly answer Canberra's concerns about secondary movements of asylum-seekers once they reached Indonesia from Malaysia and elsewhere.

But such a plan would probably involve a massive funding injection by Australia.

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Evans said the government had increased discussions with countries in the region on combating the flow of boatpeople. “These discussions include a range of issues including matters of law enforcement, detention and arrangements for the processing of asylum-seekers,” the spokesman said. “The government will continue to work co-operatively with the Indonesian government and other countries in the region on such matters.”

Pamela Curr of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said she believed the Australian government was pressing the Indonesian government to detain transiting asylum-seekers, even when they had been recognised as refugees by the UNHCR. “They're doing it already,” Ms Curr said. “Most of them are now staying in detention. What is happening obviously is that the Indonesian government is formalising the process.”

There are more than 1000 asylum-seekers living in the community in Indonesia hoping to reach Australia, and at least as many again locked up in 13 detention centres across the country. Those in the community are allowed to do so because they have been interviewed by UN High Commissioner for Refugees officials, or have obtained an appointment letter for such an interview. But the practice is unpopular with Indonesian immigration officials, who privately express concern at the extra amount of work this creates, given the number of asylum-seekers who use their community-accommodation status to organise trips to Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and elsewhere. Many Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian and Sri Lankan asylum-seekers who have won UN approval live in the hills near Bogor, south of Jakarta, where accommodation and other costs are paid for at least in part by Australia through the International Organisation for Migration. From there they have access to the network of people-smugglers, whose phone numbers are passed from person to person.

Immigration officials believe policing this situation distracts from what they see as their real job, of keeping non-Indonesian aliens out of the country.

However, moving the entire asylum-seeker population into detention centres would require a massive infrastructure investment, of the kind executed by Australia in Tanjung Pinang on Bintan island near Singapore at an estimated cost of $12 million.

Additional reporting: Paul Maley


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