The return of the boat people
Sydney Morning Herald
April 24 2003

The prospect of a new wave of boat people risking life to reach Australia has sharply refocused a nation's attention on the intricate relationship between foreign diplomacy and domestic outcomes. Had it not been for two boatloads of men, women and children fleeing Vietnam - and being assisted on their way by Indonesian local authorities - the convening in Bali next week of a second regional conference on people smuggling would have passed with barely a comment in Australia. The Federal Government's election-time hardline response to asylum seekers, particularly boat people, was deemed to be so successful at repelling refugees that the issue had slipped from the public's agenda, even though its firm resolution remained the foundation on which John Howard built his remarkable popularity.

No foreign boat has brought refugees to Australian shores since mid-2001 and the Government has since excised scores of Australian islands, atolls and reefs from its migration zone. Then two boats began the hazardous journey from Vietnam, the source of so many earlier boat people, with Australia their stated destination. Along the way, they ran short of fuel, food and medicine. These were replenished by Indonesian authorities before they ordered the boat people to continue their journeys.

Consequently, Australia is forced to contemplate what might have gone wrong with its policy of deterrence. Hammered into shape in the international furore over the MV Tampa incident 18 months ago, the policy will not be eased. For all the rancour it generated, including claims about it contributing to the October 2001 drowning of 353 asylum seekers aboard the Siev-X, the policy remains overwhelmingly endorsed by Australians. Politically, that makes it a stayer. That, however, does not obviate the need for objective analysis of whether Australia's approach best achieves the border protection demanded by voters. Indonesia arcs across the top end of half of Australia's vast northern territorial waters. It would be plain silly to think our northern borders could be guaranteed against penetration by refugee boats if Indonesia was unwilling to help Australia or, worse, determined to assist Australia-bound boats. Coastguard aircraft might spot most refugee boats and direct navy vessels to their whereabouts, but tip-offs often come from Indonesia. In other words, Indonesia-Australia co-operation is stronger than that suggested by reports of Indonesian help in keeping boats headed south.

Political and administrative power is more decentralised in Indonesia than in Australia. That's a function of geography, history, culture and ethnicity but it means decisions at a local Indonesian level are more likely to be autonomous. That alone might explain how local Indonesian authorities sometimes seem to subvert so flagrantly Indonesian obligations to assist Australia against the evils of people smuggling. But it points also to the need for even greater effort in forging stronger multilateral co-operation when Australia and Indonesia co-chair the Bali summit next week. Convincing Indonesia it should criminalise people smuggling would be an encouraging start.

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