Danger of miring navy in Jakarta's dirty work

By Mark Baker
April 7, 2006


IT IS now evident the chorus of cheers that greeted the Immigration Department's prompt and uncharacteristic decision to grant temporary residence to 42 West Papuan asylum seekers was premature.

Statements by the Prime Minister and senior colleagues in recent days show this was a bureaucratic aberration and Australia is back to business as usual in deciding, as Tampaspeak would have it, who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

It is hardly surprising the Government is scrambling again to slam shut the refugee door in the wake of the angry backlash from Jakarta over the Papuan visas. But the remarks yesterday by Defence Minister Brendan Nelson head Australia into uncharted legal and moral waters.

Nelson has proposed "joint and co-ordinated naval patrols" with Indonesia to help prevent more Papuan boat people reaching Australia, as well as combating other transnational crime.

It is one thing for Australia to round up boat people on the high seas and pack them off to prisons in Nauru, quite another to join hands with the Indonesian military to help repel Indonesian nationals - a military that a fresh US State Department report this week found to have a "history of repressive responses to separatist activity".

What would Australia's position be in the event that our naval personnel are witness to abuses of boat people by their Indonesian counterparts? What if our sailors are found to have helped send back to West Papua people who are subsequently abused, or worse? What, indeed, if a bilateral boat blockade were to see a repeat of the 2001 SIEV-X tragedy in which 353 Middle Eastern boat people drowned in a failed attempt to reach Australia?

Naturally the Government wants to avoid the diplomatic repercussions of further unscheduled arrivals from West Papua, but the Immigration Department's decision to allow the 42 Papuans to stay acknowledges their legitimate fear of persecution if sent home. Are those who might follow in their wake any less likely to be genuine refugees?

The Royal Australian Navy was scandalously compromised by the Tampa affair. The Government has no right to risk it being mired in Indonesia's dirty work in the troubled waters off West Papua.


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