Last Updated: Thursday, 31 July 2014, 17:47 GMT

Paying the Price: Australia, Indonesia try to Stop Asylum Seekers

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 September 2001
Citation / Document Symbol Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 8
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Paying the Price: Australia, Indonesia try to Stop Asylum Seekers , 1 September 2001, Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 8, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3c58099a1.html [accessed 2 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

(In June and July, Refugee Reports staff writer Jana Mason visited Indonesia and Australia to assess the two countries' cooperation in dealing with asylum seekers, most of whom are persons from Afghanistan and Iraq seeking to enter Australia through the efforts of organized smugglers. She reports on the "regional cooperation" component of Australia's response to the unauthorized arrival of asylum seekers.)

"Pay a people smuggler and you'll pay the price." This is the title, and the message, of the Australian government's "overseas information campaign," aimed at discouraging the arrival of unauthorized migrants, including asylum seekers, to its shores. Along with posters and other materials, the campaign includes video spots showing the shark-infested seas around Australia, the crocodiles closer to shore, and the snakes further inland – where, in fact, some of the detention centers housing unauthorized migrants are located.

In late August, the international community witnessed a dramatic example of this effort to prevent unauthorized boat arrivals, when Australia refused to allow the entry of more than 400 persons, most of whom claimed to be from Afghanistan, aboard a Norwegian freighter that had rescued them at sea. Although the incident commanded headlines, this was hardly the first group of asylum seekers to arrive without warning at Australian territory.

During Australia's fiscal year 1999-2000, 4,175 unauthorized migrants arrived on the nation's shores by boat – an increase of 354 percent over the previous fiscal year. The majority of these arrivals were from Afghanistan and Iraq, with smaller numbers from Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere. As the number of such arrivals has increased, Australia has embarked on a multi-pronged approach to discourage and prevent such migration, either at its source, en route, or upon arrival. The overseas information campaign is one component of this approach.

Another component involves the cooperation of other countries, including source countries of asylum seekers (such as China, in previous years); countries of "first asylum," which asylum seekers enter when fleeing their homelands and where they often reside for months or years (such as Pakistan and Iran); and the transit countries (such as Indonesia) through which asylum seekers pass on their way to Australia. In the case of the People's Republic of China (PRC), the Australian government believes that its negotiations with the PRC government are responsible at least in part for virtually stopping the arrival of Sino-Vietnamese "boat people" in Australia. Australia seeks similar results with respect to Afghans, Iraqis, and others from the Middle East/South Asia region, who now form the bulk of the new arrivals.

Other components of Australia's efforts to deter unauthorized migration include: the mandatory detention of all unauthorized arrivals, including asylum seekers (a policy that began in response to Cambodian and Vietnamese boat arrivals in the mid-90s, but which has been maintained by successive governments in response to increasing numbers of unauthorized arrivals); locating some detention facilities in remote, desert areas (where the government has said that "existing infrastructure" was readily available) with few opportunities for outside contact in the early stages of detention; and the granting of three-year temporary protection visas to successful asylum applicants who arrived in an unauthorized manner, rather than the permanent protection visas for which authorized arrivals are eligible. A related action taken by Australia was last year's temporary suspension of refugee visa grants from overseas (refugee resettlement) to compensate for increased "onshore" asylum claims and approvals, a step that resulted from Australia's combined ceiling for refugee admissions and asylum.

Some aspects of this approach, particularly the detention policy and conditions, have received a great deal of media attention and scrutiny in Australia and, to some extent, internationally. Less understood is the regional cooperation component, which Australia has initiated with a number of countries in the Asia/Pacific region, particularly Indonesia.

Indonesia and Australia

One glance at a map of the region reveals Indonesia's importance to Australia's efforts to curtail unauthorized boat arrivals. Indonesia is a vast archipelago of 13,000 islands (about half of them inhabited) stretching over 3,000 miles, mostly to the north and northwest of Australia. Of particular significance is Indonesia's proximity to two Australian territories off the Australian mainland. Australia's Christmas Island is more than 900 miles from the mainland but only 210 miles south of Java, Indonesia's most densely populated island. Australia's Ashmore Reef is 192 miles from the mainland, but only 90 miles south of the Indonesian island of Roti, near West Timor.

Although some boats carrying asylum seekers have arrived directly on the Australian mainland (particularly those carrying Chinese in previous years), the vast majority of recent boats have arrived – intentionally – at Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef. Nearly all have departed from Indonesia.

What Australia views as an "influx" of asylum seekers from the Middle East and South Asia began in late 1997. The reasons for the increased migration likely include poor conditions in the countries of origin and policy shifts in countries of first asylum (such as Pakistan and Iran's increasingly harsh treatment of Afghan refugees, whom the two countries have been hosting for more than 20 years with diminishing assistance), along with shifting strategies of the smugglers. Australia also believes that its "generous treatment" of asylum seekers, including high approval rates, access to family reunion, and an extensive array of integration services, has sent the message that it is open to further arrivals.

The routes taken by asylum seekers are varied and complex, and have changed in response to governmental enforcement of immigration laws. What most recent Australia-bound asylum seekers have in common is transit through Malaysia, which grants visa-free entry to nationals of Islamic countries. Australia has urged Malaysia, without success, to change this policy (a potential development that one observer said could be "the one single thing that could change all this"). In the meantime, the geography of Indonesia makes it almost certain to remain a transit point.

"Regional Cooperation Arrangements"

For the past few years, Australia has sought to establish a formal mechanism for the interception and processing of asylum seekers in Indonesia and other countries in the region. Discussions have taken place in various international and regional fora on migration and smuggling. In early 2000, the components of a "regional cooperation arrangement" between Indonesia and Australia finally came together.

The arrangements involve four key players: the Indonesian government (both at the central and local levels, including police and immigration officials); its Australian counterpart; the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and has no system for granting refugee status. However, Indonesian authorities permit asylum seekers to remain in Indonesia while UNHCR assesses their claims. Persons recognized by UNHCR as refugees are permitted to remain pending identification of a durable solution.

According to the Australian government, UNHCR declined to play the lead role in the new arrangements as envisioned by Australia. UNHCR said that it assesses the claims of asylum seekers after being approached directly by them, but it does not seek them out, according to Australian officials. The "compromise" was that IOM would take the lead – consistent with IOM's own view of its mandate.

A representative of the Indonesian government told Refugee Reports that Australian officials asked Indonesia to make one of its islands, such as Galang (near Singapore), available for the processing of unauthorized migrants. Galang hosted thousands of Vietnamese refugees during the late 1970s and 1980s. In October 2000, according to media reports, Indonesia's then-president Abdurrahman Wahid denied the request, saying Australia should use one of its own islands, such as Christmas Island. The Australian government, however, denies that such a request was made.

IOM Plays Lead Role

The arrangements work as follows: when Indonesian authorities first encounter a group of unauthorized migrants (e.g., when they are suspicious of their identity and ask to see travel documents, sometimes after having been informed by hotel staff or other Indonesians), they detain the individuals and contact IOM. They also occasionally place the individuals in immigration "quarantine" or other detention facilities. Generally, however, the lack of such facilities means that the migrants remain in hotels or other accommodation.

The "interception" of asylum seekers, therefore, virtually always occurs on land. Increasingly, persons are detained upon an unsuccessful attempt to leave Indonesia by boat (e.g., after experiencing distress at sea). In no case, according to Indonesian officials, has the Indonesian navy or coast guard intercepted unauthorized migrants in Indonesian waters or on the high seas.

IOM, which maintains offices in Jakarta and two other locations in Indonesia, sends its staff to where the "irregular migrants" (as IOM calls them) are located. After conducting an initial assessment, IOM staff informs the migrants that the organization can assist with voluntary return to their home countries or to another country that they have a right to enter. They also tell the migrants that they may contact UNHCR if they have any fears of returning home. According to IOM staff, the vast majority of the migrants interviewed want to see UNHCR. Most, in fact, are already aware of the refugee agency and ask to see UNHCR officials without being prompted.

IOM subsequently notifies the Jakarta office of UNHCR about those migrants who request refugee status determination interviews. In some cases, UNHCR is already aware of the group, having been informed by the Indonesian authorities or by the Australian embassy. IOM also provides medical assistance and arranges longer-term accommodation for the migrants, if needed. Because the Indonesian police and immigration authorities have little space in which to detain persons who violate immigration rules, the asylum seekers are generally housed in local hotels.

IOM makes travel arrangements for any persons who elect voluntary return (IOM's constitution prohibits it from participating in involuntary return). According to IOM staff, approximately ten percent of the migrants choose voluntary return. Those most likely to do so, they said, are Iranians and Pakistanis, although many from those countries also elect to see UNHCR.

IOM officials said they ensure return is voluntary not only through conversations, but by having the individual sign a "Declaration for Voluntary Return," written in both English and the signatory's language. The declaration says in part that the migrant desires "to return peacefully and voluntarily to my own country of origin" and that "after due consideration and entirely of my own free will," he or she wishes to be assisted by IOM in returning.

According to another IOM document, the agency considers that return is voluntary when "the migrant's free will is expressed at least through the absence of refusal to return, e.g., by not resisting to board transportation or not otherwise manifesting disagreement." The document continues, "From the moment it is clear that physical force will have to be used to effect movement, IOM would have no further involvement." IOM staff in Jakarta noted, however, that all returns from Indonesia have been positive decisions on the part of the migrants.

In some cases, voluntary return is difficult to organize because some countries will not accept the return of their nationals and others will not accept non-nationals for the purposes of transit. In other cases, travel documents are difficult to obtain.

The Australian government believes that IOM is in the best position to play the lead role in these arrangements because, as an Australian official told Refugee Reports, "IOM is able to quickly – usually within 72 hours – provide necessities, such as medical services and food. At this point, the individuals are illegal immigrants and not of interest to UNHCR until they have sought protection."

UNHCR Assesses Claims

Once notified by IOM, UNHCR staff in Jakarta travel to the asylum seekers' locations throughout Indonesia and conduct refugee status determinations. Because UNHCR has only three staff to conduct these interviews, asylum seekers must often wait weeks or even months for a UNHCR interview. Further delaying the process is UNHCR's difficulty in finding interpreters for certain languages, particularly Kurdish (spoken by some Iraqis), a problem encountered by IOM as well.

In some cases, IOM relocates asylum seekers to Jakarta even prior to UNHCR screening. This is done primarily when the asylum seekers' presence has caused tension with the local community or when Indonesian authorities have asked that the migrants be relocated.

After UNHCR makes a decision on the claim (which may also take weeks or longer), those asylum seekers granted refugee status are relocated to Jakarta. At that point, they become UNHCR "cases" and are no longer under the care of IOM. UNHCR, through a local contractor, finds temporary housing in the Jakarta area for these refugees. Subsequently, UNHCR provides cash assistance to the refugees, who must then arrange and pay for their own accommodation.

As of August 31, 535 asylum seekers apprehended under the regional cooperation arrangements had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR. Another 755 persons were pending UNHCR decisions (including, in some cases, pending appeal), and 650 new arrivals were not yet registered with UNHCR (according to IOM). UNHCR's overall refugee recognition rate was 56.2 percent. The recognition rate was roughly 73.8 percent for persons from Iraq and 31.5 percent for persons from Afghanistan.

Once the asylum seekers are recognized as refugees, they await a "durable solution." For nearly all of the refugees, voluntary repatriation is not likely in the near term, given the situations in their home countries, nor is local integration in Indonesia possible for any of them. Therefore, resettlement in a third country has become the most viable solution and is being pursued by UNHCR.

Conditions for Asylum Seekers in Indonesia

As of early August, IOM was assisting nearly 1,000 asylum seekers in 15 locations throughout Indonesia. Some 500 others were in the care of UNHCR. By late August, as a result of new arrivals, the total number of asylum seekers and recognized refugees had grown to about 2,000. The Australian and Indonesian governments have said that many more are likely in Indonesia.

Many of those under IOM's care are awaiting screening by UNHCR. Others await UNHCR's decision, and still others have been denied refugee status and are either in the process of appeal or, having exhausted their appeals, remain in Indonesia because they have not elected voluntary return.

Although the "screened-out" individuals are subject to deportation by Indonesia, the government is not known to have deported any unauthorized migrants. This may be due to a lack of sufficient resources on Indonesia's part, as well as a preoccupation with its own internal difficulties. Indonesia has experienced widespread political strife, separatism, and ethnic and political violence for the past three years. There are currently more than 1.2 million internally displaced persons throughout Indonesia, in addition to an estimated 100,000 East Timorese refugees in Indonesia's West Timor – one of the locations of Afghan asylum seekers.

The number of persons in IOM's care fluctuates often, not only as a result of new arrivals, but because many asylum seekers "run away," i.e., disappear, at some stage in the process. According to the Indonesian government, unauthorized migrants are subject to detention (although the official status of those who submit asylum requests is less clear). In reality, "they're quite free," said an IOM official. According to the Australian government and IOM, some asylum seekers – including some approved as refugees by UNHCR – apparently decide to continue their journey to Australia by boat. In up to 30 percent of the cases, persons who have "run away" have later been apprehended in another part of Indonesia.

According to numerous persons interviewed by Refugee Reports, the percentage of asylum seekers "running away" is not surprising. Many noted the high level of corruption in Indonesia and said that some local officials were likely being paid by smugglers to "look the other way" when the asylum seekers left for Australia. Others noted that, because many Indonesians harbor a lingering resentment toward Australia for its role in securing East Timor's independence (Australia led the multinational force sent to East Timor in the wake of the Indonesian military-backed militia violence following the independence vote), there is little incentive to help Australia achieve a goal that could place a burden on Indonesia.

Australia Pays the Bills

Australia's role in these arrangements comes primarily in the form of funding. The Australian government pays for all of the following: IOM and UNHCR expenses for accommodation, food, and other assistance to third-country nationals who are "detained" (i.e., those not yet approved as refugees by UNHCR); IOM's costs for the voluntary removal of those who choose to depart Indonesia; and UNHCR's administrative and processing costs associated with refugee status determination. At this point, Australia is even paying the accommodation costs of persons who have been denied refugee status by UNHCR and who elect to remain in Indonesia without status.

Australia has also offered to pay UNHCR to readmit approved refugees to "countries of prior protection" (i.e., countries of first asylum, such as Pakistan), if such arrangements can be made. UNHCR has thus far declined to pursue such readmission.

According to an Australian government document describing the arrangements, Australia also provides training and equipment to its Indonesian police and immigration counterparts, in order to "increase [Indonesia's] capacity to deal with irregular migrants and people smugglers." The training includes such areas as document fraud detection.

According to the Australian government, "The cooperative arrangements, and the roles of IOM and UNHCR, are in the interests of both Indonesia and Australia. In both cases, sovereignty is being breached and unlawful acts are being committed by violations of the immigration systems. Through the arrangements, there is a reassertion of sovereignty – territorial integrity – and control of who enters and remains, while at the same time we are maintaining our protection obligations for those who seek asylum."

Resettlement Hits Snags

When it initiated the regional cooperation arrangements, Australia said that it would not accept for resettlement any persons intercepted under the arrangements and approved as refugees by UNHCR. This stance, officials said, was to avoid "rewarding these people with an outcome they have sought, and possibly giving rise to further irregular people movement into Indonesia." Instead, Australia hoped other resettlement countries would admit these individuals, much as Australia has done for certain refugees intercepted outside the Asia/Pacific region – including, potentially, Cubans and Haitians recently intercepted by U.S. authorities (although Australia has made no decisions on these cases yet).

U.S. officials reportedly took issue with Australia's position, believing it should participate in the resettlement effort, at least by reuniting refugees with family members in Australia. Subsequently, Australia agreed to resettle those refugees with "family links" in Australia, saying it did so "in accordance with the principle of burden sharing." The United States then began resettlement interviews in Jakarta, as did a number of other countries.

As of early August, UNHCR had submitted the cases of recognized refugees to at least ten resettlement countries, including the United States, Canada, Sweden, and Australia. The resettlement countries had collectively issued resettlement decisions for 112 persons, with 62 persons being accepted (primarily by the United States and Sweden) and 50 rejected. By the end of the month, 31 persons had thus far departed Indonesia.

About 75 percent of the refugees are considered "free cases," meaning they have no family members in the United States or other resettlement countries.

Although the resettlement countries have yet to decide on most cases, the approval rates as of August 9, particularly for the United States, have been much lower than anticipated by the Australian government and UNHCR. The United States had approved only 36 percent of the cases it had decided – with indications that the vast majority of remaining cases would likely be denied. These results reportedly prompted complaints by the Australian government that the United States was not adequately participating in the effort to find durable solutions for the refugees according to the principle of "burden sharing."

One reported reason for the low U.S. approval rate is that UNHCR granted refugee status to a significant number of Iraqis on the basis of sur place considerations. Under the concept of refugee sur place, an individual can become a refugee, regardless of the reasons for leaving his or her homeland, on the basis of events subsequent to departure. While the classic example is a coup d'etat in the individual's home country, the triggering event can also be the act of seeking asylum or of publicly speaking out against his or her home country while abroad.

In the case of the Iraqis in Jakarta, the sur place factor was the publicity surrounding some of the asylum seekers, including a visit by officials from the Iraqi embassy in Jakarta to two locations at which the asylum seekers were housed. (The purpose of the visit, and who invited them, is unclear; some sources believe the Indonesian government brought them there to convince the asylum seekers to return home, while others speculate that the smugglers arranged the visit to manufacture a sur place claim.) The officials reportedly took photos, and the visit resulted in press reports not only in Jakarta but in Iraq. A news article in the Iraqi press referred to the asylum seekers as "apostates," since many of them claimed to be members of persecuted religious minorities in Iraq.

UNHCR's Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status notes that, in determining whether someone qualifies as a refugee sur place on the basis of actions such as expressing his or her political views abroad, "Regard should be had in particular to whether such actions may have come to the notice of the authorities of the person's country of origin and how they are likely to be viewed by those authorities."

Although the United States has previously recognized refugees based on sur place grounds, the low approval rate in Jakarta reportedly reflects a discomfort with granting refugee status on such grounds. While the actual sur place determination applies only to a percentage of the refugees, one source told Refugee Reports, "It's as if the sur place issue has tainted the whole caseload in Jakarta as far as the U.S. is concerned."

Other observers said that the United States may be concerned that resettlement might attract additional asylum seekers to Indonesia, thus having the potential to hurt U.S.-Indonesia relations.

Like the United States, Canada was expected to have a low approval rate in Jakarta. Although Canada had interviewed 25 cases but had not yet approved or denied any as of August 31, Canadian officials indicated that the approval rate could be as low as five percent. One source said Canada feels that not enough effort has been made to return Iraqis to Iran, where some of them resided for years before arriving in Indonesia.

Thus, as one observer noted, a "tug of war" has developed in Jakarta. While the United States and Canada may be joining Australia in its view that unauthorized migration, even of asylum seekers, should be stopped – and that refusing to resettle such persons from Indonesia may send that signal – the low approval rates for resettlement have annoyed the Australian government, which fears that asylum seekers left in Indonesia will eventually find their way to Australia. "More importantly," said an Australian official, "it undermines the signal that those with protection needs will be provided for, but that they won't get the migration outcome sought and may be resettled elsewhere."

Next Stop Cambodia?

The arrangements in Indonesia were the first of what the Australian government hopes will be many in the Asia/Pacific region. Australian officials are in various stages of negotiation with a number of countries, but have only concluded arrangements with Indonesia. Another country being pursued is Cambodia.

UNHCR staff in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, said the agency has not entered into any regional cooperative arrangements with the Cambodian and Australian governments and IOM, and that it has no plans to do so. They said they were aware, however, that the other parties were actively negotiating such an arrangement. In the meantime, a less-formal arrangement already seems to be taking shape.

On July 8, Cambodian authorities seized an Indonesian-owned logging vessel and arrested the 241 Afghans, Pakistanis, and at least one Iranian on board as the group left Sihanoukville, southwestern Cambodia, en route to Australia. The would-be migrants had reportedly arrived in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on flights from Karachi in southern Pakistan and entered Cambodia on tourist visas. They were charged with departing Cambodia illegally and were detained pending resolution of their status in Cambodia.

Authorities also arrested twelve Indonesians suspected of involvement in a smuggling syndicate. The July 8 effort was believed to be the first recent attempt by people-smugglers to use Cambodia as a transit point to Australia. Australian officials said Sihanoukville emerged over a decade ago as a staging ground for boat arrivals to Australia, mainly of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian nationals. During 2000, Cambodian authorities reportedly arrested thousands of undocumented Chinese nationals, all of whom were sent home.

Australian Ambassador to Cambodia Louise Hand praised the Cambodian government's "prompt response" in helping to effectively "shut down a whole new route" for the smuggling of persons from the Middle East and South Asia into Australia.

An IOM spokesperson said Cambodia's emergence as a transit point reflected some success in the Australia-Indonesia cooperation.

Unlike Indonesia, Cambodia is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. However, like Indonesia, it has no domestic law on refugees and no procedure for assessing asylum claims. Therefore, it allows UNHCR to conduct refugee status determinations and permits UNHCR-recognized refugees to remain in Cambodia indefinitely. Work permits are generally not granted to recognized refugees, although many refugees reportedly work without such permits. According to UNHCR, resettlement to third countries is a "very limited" option for refugees in Cambodia.

UNHCR staff in Cambodia told Refugee Reports that the refugee agency has had "full access" to the group arrested July 8, which has been housed in a hotel in the capital. In a series of meetings with the entire group, as well as separate sessions for females, UNHCR "advised all members of the group regarding the current protection situation in Cambodia and their option to apply for asylum in Cambodia with the assistance of UNHCR and the Cambodia authorities." Those wishing to return were told that they could apply to IOM for assistance.

As of August 29, according to UNHCR, 15 persons – all Afghans – had sought asylum in Cambodia with UNHCR's assistance. UNHCR "screened out" three cases as "manifestly unfounded," leaving 12 cases open and awaiting decisions.

UNHCR also reported that 177 persons had voluntarily returned, almost all to Pakistan. An additional 24 had volunteered to return, but lacked current visas or other travel documents. The remaining 26 had neither volunteered to return nor applied for asylum.

According to IOM, two Pakistanis had been charged with "masterminding the plan to smuggle the group to Australia."

Recent Arrivals Break Record; Australia Turns Away Ferry

At the time of Refugee Reports' visit, Australian officials said it was too soon to assess the impact of the Indonesia-based regional cooperation arrangements. Some officials, however, said anecdotal evidence – including evidence that people-smugglers were moving their operations elsewhere – suggested that the arrangements were beginning to reduce the number of boat arrivals.

Actual arrivals fell by 34 from 4,175 in fiscal year 1999-2000 to 4,141 in the year 2000-2001, which ended June 30.

In August, however, Australia experienced an upsurge of arrivals, with nearly 1,000 asylum seekers landing on Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef in a one-week period. Within 11 days, more than 1,500 had arrived, according to press reports. One boat carrying about 360 persons, which landed on Christmas Island on August 22, represented the "biggest boatload of asylum seekers ever to reach Australia," according to press reports. They were the third group to land in six days, following a group of 348 who arrived on the island August 16, and 230 who reached Ashmore Reef August 20.

A spokesperson for Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said that even more asylum seekers were preparing to leave Indonesia soon and that Australia was rushing to put contingency plans in place, such as increasing its detention capacity by readying unused military bases across the country. In response, the opposition party's immigration spokesperson said the Australian government had "lost control over people smuggling" and that "we need a fresh approach."

On August 27, the government may have demonstrated such a fresh approach. For the first time, Australia refused entry to a ship carrying asylum seekers – in this case a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, carrying 432 persons, mostly claiming to be Afghans. The freighter, reportedly on its way to Singapore, had rescued the migrants from a sinking Indonesian ferry the previous day. The asylum seekers demanded that the captain take them to Christmas Island. Australia, however, refused to allow the freighter to dock, saying that under international law, the asylum seekers should have been taken to the nearest port of call – a statement disputed by some legal scholars.

Following complaints by the freighter's owners that there were not enough provisions on board to allow the asylum seekers to get to the nearest Indonesian port, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said that his government would provide food, water, and medical supplies, but that the matter of the ship would then be turned over to the governments of Indonesia and Norway to resolve. Australia sent a team of doctors by helicopter to the ship.

The Norwegian foreign affairs ministry said Australia had a moral obligation to allow the ship to dock, adding that Australia's actions could lead ships to ignore distress calls and leave drowning people in the ocean rather than rescue them.

Indonesia at one point said it would allow entry to the Tampa but then changed its mind, even saying that it would take military action to prevent the boat from arriving. New Zealand, however, said that it would consider granting asylum to the passengers if they arrived there.

While the Tampa remained in international waters 30 miles north of Christmas Island, UNHCR urged Australia, Indonesia and Norway to "work this out as soon as possible." The agency also said Australia should "act according to humanitarian principles."

Howard maintained his tough stance despite a flood of international criticism, saying he hoped to send a clear message to unauthorized migrants. That message was intensified August 29, when the Tampa's captain took the boat into Australian waters and Australia responded by sending troops to the ship to prevent it from reaching land.

Two days later, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer asked the United Nations, currently administering the tiny territory of East Timor in preparation for independence, to allow the asylum seekers to land in East Timor to have their refugee claims processed there. East Timorese leaders responded by offering to temporarily house the group if the United Nations paid the bill. However, when UNHCR officials pointed out practical problems caused by the territory's lack of infrastructure, Downer rejected the proposal, saying East Timor was not an appropriate destination for the asylum seekers, even as a processing center.

On September 1, as the Tampa's passengers prepared to spend their sixth night aboard the ship, a break in the stalemate came. When New Zealand and the tiny island nation of Nauru offered to house the asylum seekers while their refugee claims were being processed, Howard agreed. Under the plan, New Zealand would take 150 of the asylum seekers – mainly women, children, and families – from the Tampa, with the remainder, mostly men, going to Nauru.

The asylum seekers going to New Zealand would have their asylum claims assessed under New Zealand's asylum system. Those found to be refugees would remain there. The government of Nauru asked UNHCR to screen the asylum seekers taken there, and the refugee agency said it would consider the request. Australia said it would meet all of Nauru's costs for transportation and housing. Howard stressed that at no time would the asylum seekers land on Australian territory.

The Australian government subsequently agreed to provide Nauru with an aid package worth $20 million Australian dollars (about $10 million U.S. dollars) to help improve power, communications, and medical services on the island, in return for allowing entry to the asylum seekers.

On September 3, the Tampa's passengers were transferred to an Australian troopship, the HMAS Manoora, that was to take them to Papua New Guinea (PNG), from where they would be immediately transferred to New Zealand and Nauru – an arrangement subject to change pending the outcome of judicial processes. Papua New Guinea's opposition party warned that the asylum seekers might claim refugee status there once they landed. "If Howard fears allowing Australia's territory to be used [as a processing point], why should we allow ours?" said an opposition spokesperson.

The journey to the PNG capital of Port Moresby was expected to take about a week. While on board, the asylum seekers would be registered by IOM. However, all parties were bracing for a possible change in plans, as an Australian court was considering a challenge by civil liberties groups to the legality of the government's refusal to allow entry to the asylum seekers. An injunction had previously prevented the removal of the Tampa's passengers.

Reacting to the developments, a UNHCR spokesperson said, "UNHCR would have preferred another solution to this. Our option would have been first to put them ashore on Christmas Island, at least temporarily." He added that Australia's actions could send an unfortunate message to impoverished nations closer to conflict zones, which often take in hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Justifying its actions, the Australian government said there were now an estimated 5,000 people in the Indonesian archipelago preparing to enter Australia illegally. Howard said it was up to the United Nations to take a tougher line on nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia, which allowed people-smugglers to cross their borders. On September 5, three Australian ministers arrived in Jakarta for renewed talks with the parties to the regional cooperation arrangements. The Indonesian government, however, balked at suggestions that it was responsible for the recent series of events.

On September 7, as the Manoora continued toward Papua New Guinea, Australian Coastwatch officials spotted a wooden boat, the Aceng, on its way to Ashmore Reef. An Australian Navy frigate, one several assigned to the surveillance operation, was sent to warn the Indonesian vessel that its passengers would face detention (and the crew 20 years in jail) if it did not turn around. When it failed to do so, Australian Navy personnel boarded the Aceng in international waters. Navy officials said this was allowed under international law because the boat was displaying no flags or port-of-registry indications.

The Indonesia-registered Aceng subsequently turned around. However, it later reversed course and entered Australia's "contiguous zone," after which ensued several hours of what media reports termed a "cat and mouse game." Eventually, the Manoora arrived at the site, and the Aceng's passengers – more than 200 persons, most of whom said they were Iraqi – were "voluntarily transferred" onto the Manoora, bringing the total number of migrants (most of whom were believed to be asylum seekers) on that ship to more than 600.

On September 11, Australia's federal court ruled that the government had illegally detained the original group (those from the Tampa) and that those persons must be returned to Australia. The government filed an appeal the next day. In the meantime, it had ordered the Manoora to proceed directly to Nauru, bypassing Papua New Guinea. Australia's foreign minister said this step would be "a much less complicated, but somewhat more timely solution."

While awaiting the results of the appeal, Australia encountered even more boats in the vicinity of Ashmore Reef. Although such boats had previously been permitted to land, and their passengers transferred to detention facilities, the Christmas Island standoff appears to have signaled an entire new approach.

SOURCE: Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 8 (August/September 2001)

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