There seem to be endless possibilities when it comes to Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s nasty policies on how to burden asylum seekers stuck in limbo outside Australia. On 18 November 2014 Mr Morrison announced that asylum seekers who registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Indonesia on and after 1 July 2014 would no longer be eligible for resettlement in Australia.[1] Given that Australia no longer tolerates spontaneous maritime asylum seekers but banishes all newcomers to detention camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, waiting for the time-consuming resettlement process was the one and only option for refugees stuck in Indonesia.

Whereas in 2013, Australia resettled 808 refugees from Indonesia, the newly announced quota caters only for 450 people per year, all chosen from the ranks of those who arrived before July 2014. Under the previous Labor government, Australia’s humanitarian program for refugees had 20,000 places, but the Liberal government under Tony Abbott has cut down the program to 13,750 places in 2014-15.[2]

The mantra of the Liberal Party to stop irregular arrivals by boat has now finally revealed its true meaning: to stop any future asylum seekers stuck in Indonesia from coming to Australia. All regular options will be ruled out. Morrison’s cant is framed around “taking the sugar of the table”, by which he means stoping all asylum seekers from coming to Indonesia in the first place and thereby supposedly depriving the people smuggling industry of its lucrative income.

The announcement of the end of resettlement of refugees from Indonesia has triggered vehement criticism across the Arafura Sea. Although Mr Morrison claimed that his Indonesian counterparts were informed in advance of this new policy, comments by Retno Marsudi, the new Indonesian Foreign Minister, indicate otherwise. She immediately called the UNHCR to discuss the consequences of Australia’s latest step. Moreover, Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia Greg Moririaty was summoned to explain why Australia would risk further “tension between the two countries”. Indonesia sees the new policy as a betrayal of the former Australian rhetoric of fostering regional protection for refugees.

In September 2013, Mr Abbott pledged that future bilateral relations would contain “no surprises, [but be] based on mutual trust”. Yet, this latest policy turn follows damaging revelations that the Australian navy breached Indonesian sovereignty on a number of occasions between December 2013 and January 2014.

Indonesia’s treatment of transiting asylum seekers and refugees within its national territory could be described as benevolent neglect.[3] Although Indonesia is not a party to the 1961 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, so far it has tolerated asylum seekers and refugees when registered with the UNHCR. Nevertheless, Indonesian government representatives view transiting asylum seekers generally as a “thorn” (duri) in the bilateral relationship, next to other issues, such as terrorism and transnational crime.

Indonesia prefers to develop a comprehensive solution (including countries of origin, transit and destination) in order to provide effective protection for asylum seekers in the region. Meanwhile, Australia seems to only pay lip-service to the regional strategy as it forges bilateral solutions, in particular with Nauru, Papua New Guinea and lately also with Cambodia.

Thus, the Indonesian government has announced that from now on it will monitor Australia’s next steps more closely in order to see whether any more violations of its interests occur.[4] Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, who was inaugurated in October 2014, has promised on multiple occasions to restore Indonesia as a maritime power and to redefine the Indonesian-Australian relationship.

At the same time, asylum seekers in Indonesia remain in limbo. Three Indonesian ministers have resurrected a previously mothballed plan of finding an uninhabited island within the Indonesian archipelago (made up of more than 17,000 islands), to house the 10,500 asylum seekers and refugees currently registered with the UNHCR.[5] Relocating these people to a remote island somewhere in Indonesia’s poor East, however, does not promise any effective protection.

Although for the time being irregular boat traffic between Indonesia and Australia has slowed considerably, asylum seekers are now looking for help in the most unexpected places. In late November 2014, a boat with 35 asylum seekers from India and Nepal who had departed from Indonesia landed on a tiny Micronesian island about 2,000km north of Papua New Guinea.[6]

In the same month, the Australian navy intercepted a boatload of 38 Sri Lankan asylum seekers off the coast of Indonesia – outside its territorial waters. After a very cursory screening, the navy handed back all but one to Sri Lankan authorities, who arrested them for breaching immigration laws.[7]

Given Australia’s recent blatant violations of the Refugee Convention, in particular the forcible return (‘refoulement’) of Tamils to Sri Lanka where they face the risk of persecution and torture, the Abbott government has not only received harsh criticism internationally, but it has also lost a lot of its credibility.[8] In particular, it will be very hard for Canberra to convince any of the neighbouring states to accede to the Refugee Convention (as demanded). Australia’s neighbours have learned to decipher the empty rhetoric of the so-called regional solution and know by now that burden-sharing simply means burden-shifting.


Dr Antje Missbach is a research fellow at the School of Social Sciences, Monash University.