Region: Papuan Refugees and Australia-Indonesia Relations

2006

Harold Crouch

Of all aspects of the Australia-Indonesia relationship, the question of Papua has the most potential to cause trouble for both sides. The arrival in North Queensland of 43 Papuans in an out-rigger canoe last January followed by the granting of temporary protection visas in March set the scene for what The Australian newspaper described as 'the biggest rift in Australia-Indonesia relations since East Timor'. Indonesia responded by recalling its ambassador for 'consultations' while President Yudhoyono angrily warned Australia against 'playing around' with Indonesia and hinted that Indonesia might reconsider co-operation on illegal immigration and people-smuggling. Yudhoyono found it 'confusing' that Australia claimed to support Indonesian sovereignty while granting asylum to Papuan supporters of independence.

The Australian government explained that it is bound by the 1951 Refugee Convention which requires it to grant asylum to anyone who reaches Australia's shores 'with a well-founded fear of being persecuted' for their 'political opinion', among other reasons. Indonesia was not concerned with the provisions of the Refugee Convention as such (after all clause 28G(2) of the amended Indonesian constitution guarantees Indonesians 'the right to obtain political asylum from other countries'), but felt insulted by the implication that Australia believed that some Papuans met the criteria for obtaining asylum. That the Papuans claimed to be victims of genocide, however, did not mean that they were granted asylum on that ground. In fact, compared with many asylum claims where it is not easy to establish the facts, the Papuans' claim was relatively straightforward. Indonesia has been imprisoning non-violent Papuan protestors who have expressed their 'political opinion' by raising the Papuan flag and singing the Papuan anthem. One such convict was the leader of the group, Herman Wainggai.

Behind Indonesia's protest is the widespread concern that Australia is somehow aiming to detach Papua from Indonesia. Indonesia fears that as more disaffected Papuans arrive in Australia, Australian public opinion will turn against Indonesia. The government has to some extent mollified Indonesia's fears by changing the rules so that the refugees are processed on Christmas Island and could be offered asylum in other countries although there is no certainty that another country would accept them. Since the adoption of this policy, no boatload of Papuans has arrived in Australia. Ultimately, however, the flow of refugees is determined more by what happens in Papua than by Australian immigration rules. Meanwhile President Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Howard have had an apparently cordial meeting in Batam in June and the Indonesian ambassador has returned to Canberra.

WATCHPOINT: How will Indonesia react if more Papuan refugees are given asylum by Australia? Will Australia allow some of the refugees to settle in Australia?

 

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