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Cones of Silence

Australia, Indonesia and Refugees

by BINOY KAMPMARK

The recent footage, available via the Australian broadcaster, the ABC, shows an orange lifeboat which found its way to Java’s south coast on Wednesday. According to the Indonesian navy, an institution Australian politicians love to hate, there were 34 people on board a lifeboat recently purchased by the Australian Navy. Among them were 21 Iranians, including two toddlers, five from Bangladesh, six from Nepal and two from Pakistan.

In affecting this return to Indonesia, the Australian government had initiated its sixth “confirmed turn-back since the policy was enacted in December” (Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 6). The operation, a naval task initiated under the auspices, rather bizarrely, of the immigration department, was yet another one enshrouded by an intentional silence.

When asked to comment about the matter, the tight lipped Australian Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison stonewalled with characteristic ease. “In accordance with the Operation Sovereign Borders Joint Agency Task Force policy regarding public release of information on operational matters, the government has no response on the issues raised” (Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 6). It was left to a spokeswoman for the Minister, who, unsurprisingly, parroted the same line. “In line with the policy of not discussing what happens at sea, the Government has no response on the issues raised” (ABC, Feb 7).

Something that deserves comment is the practice by Australian authorities of detaining asylum seekers at sea before passing them on to Indonesia. Fairfax Media reported the comments from one group, returned last month, that they had spent days “sailing around the ocean”. The 34 asylum seekers on board the orange boat had been in Australian custody since January 27.

The crux of the refugee debate here is either simple or hideously complicated. Compassion plays no part – there are operational issues behind Australia’s policy of “sending” back the boats, and a policy of committed non-cooperation with the Indonesian authorities. The subtext of this policy is a selfish one – richer countries have greater entitlements to pull up the draw bridge. Poorer states like Indonesia can simply foot the processing bill. Canberra spies on Jakarta as a US client state, and expects Jakarta to except its role as asylum seeker processer in chief.

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has every reason to be livid. “This kind of policy of transferring people from one boat to another and then directing them back to Indonesia is not really helpful” (ABC, Feb 7).

This can be seen to flout the most basic premise of the Refugee Convention, which guarantees the right of asylum to all irrespective of whether they are actually designated refugees. Well and to the good – until you confront the legally illiterate Immigration minister and his grave band of reticent followers. Certainly, detaining asylum seekers in secret for days before returning back without due legal process is a highly questionable practice.

It began in earnest last November, when journalists suddenly found that going to media briefings with Morrison was about as exciting, and useful, as discoursing with a corpse. In truth, corpses tend to be more communicative. On the agenda was the discussion about the new Operation Sovereign Borders, a pompous title given to the Abbott government’s asylum policy, effectively a repackaged variant of previous policies.

At one specific briefing over the fate of 63 rescued “boat people”, Morrison fronted questions with Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, the essential mute commander of the operation. (In the eyes of the government, asylum seekers are serious military matters.).

“What’s become of that boat of asylum seekers?” shot one journalist. Campbell: “I will not comment further in relation to on-water matters. Thank you.” To Morrison: “Do you consider this to be a matter of public importance?” Morrison: “What is important is that the people who were the subject of our assistance are all accounted for and I’m sure all Australians will be pleased to know that is the case” (Nov 9, 2013). As ever, faux humanitarianism about people many Australians generally don’t like will get you anywhere.

The rest of the press briefing proved to be effectively redundant. Nothing was disclosed in terms of what “assistance” was provided – that would be an operational matter, and violate the injunction of secrecy. Nothing was disclosed about directions as to where the boat was heading. Another operational matter. The Australian vessel involved in the operation would not be named. “When does the incident overnight cease to be an operational matter? So at which point will you brief us on what happened?” came the exasperated response.

Morrison’s clear as mud reply: “Any detail that is provided that potentially compromises current or future operations is not detail we will be providing in a public forum.” With such individuals manning refugee policy, it may have become time to abolish the immigration department and merge it with military affairs.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com