Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd begins an Indonesia visit today as he seeks to make headway on an issue that has dogged the ruling Labor party for years: How to stop asylum seekers arriving on the country’s shores.
A week after ousting Julia Gillard as leader, and with Labor trailing the opposition coalition in opinion polls before a ballot due to be held by the end of November, Rudd needs to tackle voter discontent over the government’s inability to stem the flow of asylum seekers who have paid people smugglers in Indonesia for a place on a boat, often after starting their journey in war-torn countries like Afghanistan.
While the number of arrivals is a tiny slice of the 15.4 million people worldwide classified as refugees last year, radio shock-jock hosts often field calls from voters concerned the arrivals have taken priority over other refugees, are soaking up welfare payments or involved in terrorism.
Rudd will be under pressure to come away from his meetings with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with a plan. Even so, “I’d be surprised if he can achieve anything more than the first step because Indonesia doesn’t have a great respect for our asylum-seeker policies,” former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser said in an interview. “We’ve got to establish a humane, decent, practical policy that voters will support. It can’t be fixed in three or four months.”
Between 2002 and 2004, 69 refugees arrived in Australia on three boats; last year, 17,202 came on 278 vessels, according to figures from the Refugee Council. Others, often from strife-torn nations in the Middle East and South Asia, never made it. A total of 805 asylum seekers died on their way to Australia since October 2009, according to the Department of Immigration.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has pledged to “stop the boats” should he win government this year, a policy which would include towing vessels back to Indonesian waters. While Rudd last week said such a policy risks creating conflict with Indonesia, Foreign Minister Bob Carr has toughened Labor’s rhetoric, calling some asylum seekers “middle class” and saying Australia needed to be “more hard-edged” in processing claims.
The idea of towing back boats -- often rickety and leaking -- is “ludicrous,” said Fraser, who as Liberal-National prime minister from 1975 to 1983 ushered in Australia’s first major wave of non-white immigrants. “There are very few economic refugees that would get on those boats. It’s people who are living in terror that will do that.”
In Indonesia, the issue is one with little political mileage for Yudhoyono ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections next year, according to Sam Bateman, a senior research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Yudhoyono, who cannot run for a third term, has “to be very careful for his domestic audience in terms of not appearing to concede too much to the Australian interests,” Bateman said. “There is an inherent Indonesian sensitivity to interference.”
Speaking today in Canberra before his flight, Rudd sought to downplay expectations of a solution to prevent people smugglers operating out of Indonesia. “Don’t hold your breath for some bright and breezy announcement out of Jakarta this time tomorrow afternoon that everything is all fixed,” he said.
While growth in Indonesia was forecast by the World Bank to slow to 5.9 percent this year, demand from China for its palm oil, coal and iron has fueled a decades-long investment surge in Southeast Asia’s largest economy. Two-way trade between the world’s largest Muslim nation and Australia reached A$14.9 billion ($13.6 billion) in the year to June 30, 2012.
Australia’s major merchandise exports to Indonesia are wheat, metals including aluminum, copper and iron, and crude, according to government figures.
Increasing beef exports will also be on Rudd’s agenda after Australia tightened animal welfare standards in the wake of reports of cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs, The Australian newspaper said yesterday, without saying where it got the information.
The two will discuss animal husbandry issues, including cattle, Indonesia Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said in Jakarta yesterday. That discussion should concern Australian investment and not only trade, he said.
Asked if people smuggling would be discussed, he said: “If Australia raises it, then of course it will be discussed. But we have been consistent in saying the solution of this problem shouldn’t be shouldered by one country alone. This requires joint effort by the country of destination, transit such as Indonesia, and also the country of origin.”
Rudd would use the Indonesian government as a “prop” for his election campaign, opposition Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said yesterday. “If Kevin Rudd goes up there and just wants to hand out a whole bunch of goodies to the Indonesian government with nothing in return, well that’s a matter for him.”
The immensity of Indonesia’s coastline, an archipelago of 17,000 islands, means Yudhoyono can do little to address Rudd’s concerns, according to Susan Kneebone, a professor of forced migration and human rights at Monash University’s Faculty of Law in Melbourne.
“The Indonesians think we are arrogant and hostile in the approach that we take,” Kneebone said. The asylum-seeker issue is “out of kilter in terms of our intake in global terms and the degree it has taken hold in the minds of the public.”
Australia received 29,610 asylum applications and recognized 8,367 people as refugees in 2012, according to the Refugee Council. It resettled 5,937 refugees last year, the world’s third-highest, compared with 66,289 in the U.S. and 9,624 in Canada.
Carr said the asylum seekers were a problem for both Indonesia and Australia, with Indonesia “our nearest, important neighbor.” In an interview with Bloomberg in Seoul, Carr added he is confident of a positive outcome from Rudd’s trip, which he said is more than “just about asylum seekers.”
Successive governments have struggled with limiting boat arrivals. Then-leader Gillard last year reopened processing centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, which some commentators said was a return to former Prime Minister John Howard’s policy of holding applicants in offshore processing camps or remote onshore detention centers.
“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” Howard said in an October 2001 campaign speech. Months earlier he refused to let 430 asylum seekers rescued by a Norwegian freighter enter Australian waters.
Howard’s words “resonated with voters, who were concerned Australia was losing control of its borders,” said Haydon Manning, a politics professor at Flinders University in Adelaide. Still, “if all Australians were so xenophobic, we would never have handled this massive transformation” to a “robust multicultural society with so little intolerance.”
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