Australian prime minister Tony Abbott in Indonesia last year. (Image via)
Relations between Australia and Indonesia reached new levels of awkward this month after it emerged that Australian navy vessels had illegally entered Indonesian waters during attempts to stop asylum-seeker boats.
The breach of territorial waters was uncovered by an Australian defense investigation. And while it’s unclear how many border-control vessels were involved—or whether they were engaged in tow-back procedures (one of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s controversial border-control policies that allows the Australian navy to take control of asylum-seeker boats and tow them back to Indonesian waters)—it signals another blow to Australia’s already delicate relationship with Indonesia.
The revelations come less than three months after Indonesia officially downgraded its relations with Australia amid reports that Australian intelligence had monitored phone calls of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2009.
Speaking at a hastily organized press conference in Canberra, Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison admitted that border protection assets had “inadvertently entered Indonesian territorial waters on several occasions" while conducting operations associated with Operation Sovereign Borders, the military-led crackdown on people-smuggling introduced by the Abbott administration in September of last year. He blamed the naval breach on positional errors and offered an apology to Jakarta for the "extremely regrettable" incident.
Unsurprisingly, Indonesia wasn’t too happy about its uninvited guests. Responding to Morrison’s apology from the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa called the Abbott administration's border-protection measures "unhelpful" and confirmed that Indonesia would be stepping up naval patrols of its own borders. In an even less helpful move, Abbott acknowledged Natalegawa’s statement by comparing breaches of territorial sovereignty to dropping a catch in the sport of cricket.
Indonesia is also calling for an investigation into reports that Australia may have mistreated people aboard the asylum-seeker boats it towed back to Indonesian waters. Footage obtained by ABC News showed refugees with burns on their hands, who—according to a Kupang police investigation—were made to touch hot parts of the boat's engine by Australian navy personnel.
A boat of alleged asylum seekers heading into Australian territorial waters. (Image via)
Although Morrison has rejected the abuse claims as "unsubstantiated," last week a UN Refugee Agency spokeswoman in Jakarta encouraged Australian authorities to conduct a "swift investigation" into the allegations.
"If there has been any mistreatment of asylum seekers by the navy, then the asylum seekers could petition the UN Human Rights Committee in respect of a breach of their human rights by Australian personnel," explained Dr. Peter Billings of the TC Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland. "These rights include the right not to be subject to torture [and] inhuman and degrading treatment."
Even if accusations of mistreatment do turn out to be false (and following the leak of an email from an ABC journalist admitting that the allegations were "likely to be untrue," there’s increasing speculation), towing back asylum-seeker boats is still in breach of the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Australia is party.
"Turning back asylum-seeker boats without investigating their claims is extremely dangerous, because there are bound to be people aboard who are refugees," said Professor Susan Kneebone, lecturer in international refugee law and human rights at Melbourne's Monash University. "In international law, if you’re a refugee fitting within the terms of the Refugee Convention—and if a state that’s a signatory to the Convention takes control of you—you’re owed obligations."
In fact, between 70 and 90 percent of all asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat are genuine refugees and make up less than 2 percent of the country’s annual immigration intake.
Abbott utilized the fear and confusion surrounding so-called "boat people" during September’s election campaign, promising a 32-percent reduction in Australia's humanitarian intake, which currently amounts to around 13,750 people a year. His "Stop The Boats" mantra was scarily effective: The Liberal party defeated the left-leaning Labor party in the 2013 federal elections.
Despite escalating tensions with Indonesia, Abbott remains committed to aggressive border-control tactics, branding his government’s mission to stop the boats as a "matter of sovereignty." Although the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat has fallen by 80 percent since Operation Sovereign Borders commenced, it’s hardly a cause for celebration.
"If asylum seekers are being deterred from seeking access to protection in Australia, what are the human consequences?” asked Billings. "The evidence points to people waiting in limbo for years in desperate conditions in places like Indonesia and Malaysia."
According to the UN Refugee Agency, Indonesia hosts more than 10,800 refugees and asylum seekers in up to 16 remote detention centers. As Indonesia never ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, the job of processing asylum-seeker claims is passed on to UN Refugee Agency bodies, making the wait time for potential refugees even longer.
An asylum-seeker rights protest in Melbourne last summer. (Image via)
It’s not hard to see the diplomatic—as well as the humanitarian—benefits of sharing the responsibility towards asylum seekers with Indonesia. "The issue of asylum seekers is not a problem affecting Australia alone, and any genuine attempt to address the problem needs to be part of a regional solution rather than founded on unilateral action by the Australian government," said Dr. Jeffrey Neilson of the University of Sydney Southeast Asia Centre. "The current Australian government is in dire need of a strongly symbolic gesture of goodwill towards Indonesia if it is sincere about restoring diplomatic relations."
Now more than ever, Australia could really do with those diplomatic relations. No longer a lowly developing world neighbor, Indonesia has surpassed Australia in terms of GDP and is predicted to be the fourth largest economy in the world by 2040.
"Failing to recognize opportunities in maintaining good relations with Indonesia will not only result in squandered economic opportunities, but it risks unleashing the undercurrent of animosity and distrust that exists within both countries," Neilson said. "This could easily spill over into outward hostilities if the right set of circumstances [are] presented in the future."
Though Natalegawa’s defiant response to Australian territorial breaches looks a lot like an undercurrent of animosity, it’s important to keep the broader political context in mind. Indonesia goes to the polls for its third direct presidential election this July, and nothing wins votes like a bit of anti-Australian sentiment.
"Anything to do with Indonesian sovereignty is an important issue, but many Indonesian political personalities are doing what they can to capitalize on this," said Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Natalie Sambhi. "Under different circumstances, the foreign minister may have reacted a little less stridently."
Presidential election or not, Australia could do a lot worse than to patch things up with one of its closest—and potentially most powerful—neighbors.