The strained relations between Australia and Indonesia reached new lows this month after an investigation revealed that Australian Navy vessels had illegally entered Indonesian waters in an attempt to stop boats packed with asylum seekers.
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 permits the Australian Navy to take control of asylum-seeker boats and literally tow them back to Indonesian waters. But the revelation does clearly signal another blow to Australia’s already delicate relationship with Indonesia. The findings came less than three months after Indonesia officially downgraded its relations with Australia amid reports that Australian intelligence had monitored the 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." He blamed the naval breach on positional errors and offered an apology to Jakarta for the "extremely regrettable" incident.
Still, Indonesia wasn’t very happy about the uninvited guests. Responding to Morrison’s apology from the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa confirmed that Indonesia would be stepping up naval patrols of its borders. Abbott acknowledged Natalegawa’s statement by comparing breaches of territorial sovereignty to dropping the ball while playing 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 an Indonesian police investigation –— were made to touch hot parts of the ship's engine by Australian navy personnel.
Morrison has rejected the abuse claims as "unsubstantiated," and a leaked email from an ABC journalist stated that the allegations were "likely to be untrue." Still, towing back asylum-seeker boats is a breach of the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a party.
"Turning back asylum-seeker boats without investigating their claims is extremely dangerous, because there are bound to be people aboard who are refugees," Professor Susan Kneebone, lecturer in international refugee law and human rights at Melbourne's Monash University, told VICE News. "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."
Abbott capitalized voters' fear of so-called "boat people" during last September’s election campaign, promising a 32 percent reduction in Australia's humanitarian intake, which now amounts to about 13,750 people a year. And despite escalating tensions with Indonesia, the PM remains committed to aggressive border-control tactics, branding his government’s mission to stop the boats as a "matter of sovereignty." The number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat has fallen by 80 percent since Operation Sovereign Borders commenced.
"If asylum seekers are being deterred from seeking access to protection in Australia, what are the human consequences?” Billings asks. "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 (UNHCR), Indonesia hosts more than 10,800 refugees and asylum seekers in up to 16 remote detention centers. Since the country never ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, the job of processing asylum-seeker claims is passed on to the UNHCR, making the wait time for potential refugees even longer.
"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. "Failing to recognize opportunities to maintain 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. That could easily spill over into outward hostilities."
While Natalegawa’s defiant response to Australian territorial breaches certainly seems to indicate an undercurrent of animosity, it’s important to keep the broader political context in mind. Indonesia goes to the poles for its third direct presidential election this July. And anti-Australian sentiment wins a lot of votes.