In late September 2013, Tony Abbott made a trip to Indonesia, his first international visit as prime minister.

As opposition leader he pledged that if elected he would ‘stop the boats': prevent asylum seekers from making the perilous sea journey to Australia.

To achieve this Abbott is reliant on the goodwill of the Indonesian Government, not least because a number of his plans involve direct action within Indonesian state territory.

During the Australian election campaign politicians competed to see who could offer the ‘toughest solution’ to boat arrivals in a direct appeal to voters they believed were hostile to refugees.

The Labor Government stressed they would no longer accept deaths at sea and reopened detention camps in Nauru and Manus Island (PNG) to deter future asylum seekers.

Abbott’s rhetoric meanwhile was more focused on the boats than the people on-board. He frequently announced that he would ‘stop the boats’[1] via a three-pronged approach.

First, he pledged funds to buy up old Indonesian fishing boats in order to deny people smugglers a means of transport. Second, a plan was announced in which Australian intelligence agencies would buy information from Indonesian informants in coastal areas prone to people smuggling. Third, it was proposed that intercepted boats be towed back to Indonesia.

Indonesian reaction

Soon after Abbott was elected Indonesian politicians began expressing their concern. Mahfudz Siddiq, head of the parliamentary commission for foreign affairs, said the plan to buy unseaworthy fishing boats was ‘a crazy idea [...] degrading and offensive to the dignity of Indonesians’.[2] He also criticised Abbott’s ‘cowboy style’ and the Australian chauvinism that threatened Indonesia’s sovereignty.[3]

In reply Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop said: ‘we’re not seeking Indonesia’s permission [to carry out our policies], we’re seeking their understanding’.[4]

Outraged by this lack of diplomatic tact, Indonesia responded in a similar fashion. During a meeting between Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and his Australian counterpart in New York, only a few days before the Abbott visit to Jakarta, Dr Natalegawa said that Indonesia ‘cannot accept any Australian policy that would, in nature, violate Indonesia’s sovereignty’.[5] 

Meanwhile, two more boats with asylum seekers on board faced emergencies at sea. The first was escorted back to Indonesia, while the second had to wait so long for help that only 28 of more than 80 passengers were rescued. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison denied allegations by survivors that Australian authorities did not react quickly enough to distress calls from the vessel.[6]

With the Indonesian domestic political agenda dominated by the upcoming 2014 elections and corruption scandals, asylum seeker and refugee issues have been a high priority. This does not look likely to change, but it can be expected that the treatment of asylum seekers will further deteriorate.

Asylum seekers in Indonesia

Despite Australia’s new deterrence measures, asylum seekers have kept coming to Indonesia. They either apply for international protection and await the resettlement process, which can take many years, or risk the journey to Australia.

Only some have been deterred by the knowledge that they will now not be allowed to enter Australia to apply for asylum, but instead be taken to one of the Pacific camps. Some have agreed to be repatriated. Others have nonetheless taken a boat in the belief that the camps in Nauru and Manus Island are one step closer to Australia.

Most asylum seekers have opted to stay put in Indonesia to monitor the situation, hoping that there will be better opportunities to move on in the near future. Until then, their life is in limbo.

Asylum seekers in Indonesia are tolerated, as long as they apply for international protection with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, but Indonesia does not allow their local integration.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work legally and often lack access to proper health care and education. Those caught attempting to leave Indonesia by boat and found to be in breach of Indonesian immigration law are put in harsh, overcrowded detention camps. 

Due to overcrowding in these camps, more and more asylum seekers are released and allowed to live in allocated housing in monitored areas. The costs for these measures are covered by the International Organization for Migration, which is funded in large part by Australia.

Although life in Indonesian communities is much better than in detention, a number of relocations of asylum seekers recently took place after protests from local communities. Amid cultural misunderstandings, many Indonesians complain that Indonesia is now becoming the ‘dumping ground’ for Australia’s unwanted asylum seekers.

Looking for a bilateral solution

Finally, little was achieved by Abbott’s visit to Jakarta between September 30 and October 1. Aware of the offense caused by his plans to forcibly return boats to Indonesia, Abbott avoided bringing up the topic at all during his talks.

The only concession he could elicit from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was an agreement to begin looking for a bilateral solution, rather than relying on the inadequate multilateral approach – something Yudhoyono had already floated in previous talks. All technical details for such a bilateral approach were left to ministers to sort out afterwards.

Asylum seekers come to both Australia and Indonesia looking for protection and durable solutions. They will continue to find their way to our shores as long as they are forced to flee their war-ravaged homelands and neighbouring countries remain unsafe. Making the journeys even more complicated, will not end the flow.


Dr Antje Missbach ( is the McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Asian Law Centre and the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society, University of Melbourne.