Some stumbles, but boats are stopping

Cameron Stewart, Associate Editor
The Australian
November 14, 2013 12:00AM

THEY are phantom boats, which officially do not exist yet, but this week two more asylum-seeker vessels arrived from Indonesia. The first carried 60 people down through the Tiwi Islands and eventually was taken to Darwin, while the second, carrying about 40 people, was spotted in the Indian Ocean and escorted to Christmas Island.

Their existence will be formally acknowledged only tomorrow when Immigration Minister Scott Morrison tells Australians about them in his weekly briefing.

Yet these two boats are newsworthy precisely because of what did not happen to them. They were not turned back. They were not intercepted far to the north, near Indonesian territory, as has been the recent practice. There was no dialogue with the Indonesians and no requests to accept the return of the asylum-seekers.

After enduring a week of embarrassment from a self-induced diplomatic spat with Indonesia, Morrison has wisely chosen to hold fire for the moment on the so-called "full suite of measures" the government has promised to employ to stop the boats.

The pause will be only temporary. The government has not abandoned its aim of turning back boats by handing them back to Indonesian authorities when they are intercepted close to the Javan coast. But after the events of the past week, which saw a high seas standoff, a diplomatic row with our neighbour and a resumption of domestic political combat over asylum-seeker policy, the Abbott government is regrouping.

The Coalition's stop-the-boats policy, is not, as Labor has claimed, "in tatters". But the events of the past week amount to a rookie mistake from a rookie government that over-reached on boats when it did not need to.

Morrison would never admit this, but the evidence can be found in his own words this week.

"The fact is that the government is succeeding; we have got the upper hand on smugglers for the first time in five years," he said. "(We are) 75 per cent down on arrivals of illegal boats since Operation Sovereign Borders commenced."

And herein lies the key point. The government is winning its war against people-smugglers much more clearly and quickly than it expected.

The trajectory of boat arrivals since Kevin Rudd's Papua New Guinea solution has been on a steep downward curve, a trajectory that has continued and even increased since the Coalition took power in September.

At the height of the boat arrivals in mid-year, Australia was facing an annual rate of arrivals of more than 40,000. As things stand, the rate of annual arrivals is hovering at 5000 to 10,000 and heading south.

This has been driven by a clear message that began with the PNG solution: that no one arriving in Australia by boat will be settled in Australia. The bells and whistles that the Coalition has attached to this since the election, from stepping up disruption activities in source countries, to reintroducing temporary protection visas and trying to hand boats back to the Indonesians, are mere adjuncts to this effective central message.

But Morrison is a pugilist and a man in a hurry to achieve the outcome he believes will define his political career. He is lucky to have history on his side in that after 50,000 asylum-seeker arrivals and more than 1200 deaths at sea since Rudd first relaxed border protection in 2008, most Australians now accept the unfortunate need to be cruel to be kind, to prevent people risking their lives at sea to come to Australia.

Yet Morrison has over-egged his mandate by employing excessive secrecy on boat arrivals and by making a poor judgment call that needlessly triggered the spat with Indonesia.

Jakarta also bears some blame, but this was a skirmish the government did not need to provoke when it was comprehensively winning the bigger war.

The background to this week's events lies in the new naval tactics that the government has employed - but not announced - to stop the boats. In late September, days before Tony Abbott made his first prime ministerial visit to Jakarta, Canberra was buoyed by two incidents on the high seas that suggested a renewed level of co-operation between Australian and Indonesian authorities.

In the space of two days, the RAN went to the aid of two asylum-seeker boats after they had radioed for help less than 50 nautical miles off the Indonesian coast. As the boats were much closer to Indonesia than to Christmas Island, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority told its Indonesian equivalent, Basarnas, that its "preference is for a transfer at sea" to Indonesian authorities.

Basarnas agreed, and in relation to one of the boats, the Australian Customs ship ACV Triton was given permission to enter Indonesian waters to offload 31 rescued asylum-seekers to an Indonesian vessel.

It was a perfect solution for the Coalition because it amounted to a turnaround of boats without the violence and chaos that accompanied boat turnarounds in the Howard era. Since then, the navy and Customs have moved their prime areas of surveillance to the north, hoping to swoop on asylum-seeker boats while closer to the Indonesian coast and clearly within its search-and-rescue zone, increasing the moral argument that Indonesia take them back.

But no formal agreement has been struck about this process and Indonesia has been unpredictable in relation to it. Morrison was forced to admit this week, after it was disclosed by The Jakarta Post, that there have been two other occasions where Indonesia has refused to take back asylum-seekers after they were intercepted by the RAN inside Indonesia's search-and-rescue zone.

In addition to this patchy record, Jakarta was frothing with outrage last week from claims by fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden that Australian facilities in Indonesia were being used to spy on that country. There could hardly have been a worse time for Morrison to request that Indonesia accept the return of a boat that had been intercepted 57 nautical miles from the Java coast. Indonesia's mood may have been darkened further by Basarnas's belief that the boat was initially intercepted by the navy 107nm from Java but was brought back to 57nm off the coast before Australia requested to return the asylum-seekers to Indonesia.

Basarnus chief of search and rescue evaluation,Yopi Haryadi, made this claim yesterday to The Australian's Indonesia correspondent Peter Alford.

When Jakarta predictably refused Australia's request to hand the asylum-seekers back to Indonesia, Morrison sought to lay the blame for his own-goal on Indonesia and the subsequent critical media coverage.

"There is no real rhyme or reason to it necessarily," he lamented about Indonesia's attitude to boat returns. "On some occasion it will happen and on other occasions it won't."

The Prime Minister went further, pointing out that Indonesia has obligations under accepted international practice to accept the return of boats rescued within its own search-and-rescue zone.

"Now the normal international law is that if you are rescued in a country's search-and-rescue zone, that country has an obligation to take you," he said. "You can go to the nearest port and the nearest port is normally in the country whose search-and-rescue zone you have been picked up in."

Abbott is correct, and Indonesia shares responsibility for this latest incident because of the inconsistent messages it has given about accepting asylum-seekers who are rescued within its own search-and-rescue zone.

This inconsistency poses a dilemma for Canberra, given the navy and Customs are patrolling closer to the Indonesian coastline. The fact is, Indonesia's search-and-rescue agency Basarnas is poorly equipped to carry out search and rescue in a timely manner in its zone of responsibility.

One insider describes the common ritual in these words: "We (Australia) will detect a vessel in trouble inside their (search-and-rescue zone), so we will try to call them by phone, fax or whatever means possible. They will then say to us, we can't rescue them, can you help? Then we end up doing it inside their zone."

Abbott has made it clear that Australia will not retreat from its safety of life at sea obligations, so Canberra cannot simply leave rescues up to Indonesia.

Abbott says his government is discussing with Jakarta options that would make Indonesia more amenable to accepting the return of boats. But even the nature of those discussions is disputed.

The claim this week by Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an adviser to Indonesia's Vice-President Boediono, that a deal to swap boatpeople for refugees was on the table, was denied by Morrison and Djoko Suyanto, Indonesia's minister responsible for asylum-seeker issues.

Suyanto has been especially vocal in ruling out the return of asylum-seekers to Indonesia, saying early this week: "The Indonesian government never agreed to such wishes or policies of Australia. This has been conveyed since the time of Kevin Rudd, and there is no change of policy regarding asylum-seekers wanting to go to Australia under the current Abbott government."

It looks increasingly as if the Abbott government has abandoned the concept of forcibly turning around asylum-seeker boats and then leaving them to their own fate. This has not occurred once in the past two months, despite there being several opportunities to do so. Instead the government wants asylum-seekers rescued near Java to be handed safely into the willing arms of Indonesian authorities.

If Canberra cannot strike an agreement with Jakarta over how this can be achieved, then the concept of turnbacks will be all but dead. While this would be politically embarrassing for the Coalition, it would not spell defeat in its quest to stop the boats.

While boats are likely to arrive for some time yet, there is little doubt people-smugglers are struggling to fill their vessels as word spreads that none of their passengers will be resettled in Australia.

Their task has been made harder by news this week that more than 1100 asylum-seekers have been stopped from coming to Australia by boat since September, thanks to more aggressive disruption activities by the Australian Federal Police and its Indonesian counterparts.

Given these favourable trends, some believe Morrison needs to employ more subtlety in the way he handles his portfolio. His attempts to censor what happens on the high seas by giving a media briefing once a week - and a threadbare one at that - appear to have backfired. Last week his silence allowed Indonesia to fill the vacuum and gain the upper hand in the way the standoff was portrayed in the media.

Morrison then blamed Indonesia for not adhering to his own government's policy of not providing real-time information about asylum-seeker boats. "This last instance got very problematic because it went very public," he said. "That's why we've got to be so careful in our public comments not to run that sort of commentary."

The government is learning the media has changed since Operation Relex in 2001, not least because even asylum-seekers have mobile phones and cameras, so its attempts at censorship are backfiring.

The irony is that the government is already winning its battle against people-smugglers. It does not need to overreach in the way Morrison appears to have done this week. The Prime Minister will be hoping his rookie minister learns quickly lest he snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


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