Our boats, our People, Our Future

Article by PhD. (Candidate). Ahmad Almaududy Amri. This article was published in Jakarta Post, 28 October 2013



Before APEC was held in Bali, Tony Abbot the new elected Prime Minister of Australia visited Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for a state visit in order to discuss various bilateral issues including people smuggling. The towing back policy of Tony Abbot’s cabinet which was believed as of one of the successful campaign strategies during the Prime Minister election has been opposed by the Indonesian government including Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa. He viewed the policy as an infringement of the sovereignty of Indonesia.


         After the bilateral meeting was held, it seemed both nations supported each other to work together in combating issues related to transnational crime which also includes people smuggling. However, the real problem will only be faced when related institutions from both countries meet and discuss detailed dialogues about the treatment of the people who seek asylums in Australia. As for today, both countries have agreed on general matters and did not discuss thoroughly the towing back policy.


As for this publication, the writer tries to elaborate the general understanding of people smuggling; what status do Indonesia and Australia face in people smuggling issues; and what instruments and measures do both country have in order to address the problem.


People smuggling constitutes a threat to maritime security not only to Indonesia and Australia but to international community in general. Indeed, this issue has become one of the main concerns of the international community, as people smuggling not only affects countries of origin and destination, but also transit states. According to the British Home Office, around 30 million people are smuggled every year all over the world. A vast amount of money is also received by smugglers in return.


Poverty is the main reason for people to ‘migrate’ to another country. Their intention is to make a better life by seeking employment opportunities in the destination country. Another factor that causes many people to migrate is discrimination. In some parts of the world, people face discrimination on the basis of their race or gender, and therefore are not offered the same employment opportunities as the other people in general. Furthermore, there are countries where inequalities exist with regard to the treatment of women. In these places, women are marginalised in economic, social and political circles and do not receive the same rights enjoyed by men. Humanitarian crises have also played a role in the rise of people smuggling. In some states, people face abuses on the basis of their race, religion and/or political membership, thus causing them to voluntarily ‘migrate’ to other countries.


However, the notion of resettling in another country in order to enjoy a better quality of life does not always eventuate. During the smuggling process, many people are treated inhumanely, with some even being subjected to torture. In some circumstance, ‘immigrants’ have also died during the course of their voyage. For example in 2001, 356 people died when an overcrowded ship commissioned by people smugglers sank off the coat of Indonesia.


Yes, for the criminal syndicates, people smuggling is regarded as business with low risk and high profit. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in 2011 noted that the smugglers receive profits around USD 3 to 10 billion a year.


So what status do Indonesia and Australia have in people smuggling issues that both countries face? Indonesia acts as a transit state where people stops and transits in order to reach their destination state. Australia on the other hand is the main destination for asylum seekers transiting in Indonesia. The geographical location as well as its stable political situation in the past few years has made Indonesia as one of the main transit states for migrants to travel to Australia. Most of the asylums originate from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka as well as Myanmar. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that in 2011 there were around 2800 people that seek asylums from Australia transited in Indonesia.


On the other note, the poor economic conditions of fishermen that live around the transit areas make them vulnerable to smuggling activities. The syndicates through their agents persuade fishermen to carry asylum seekers on their boat to Australia. In return, fishermen will be awarded amount of money which hugely exceeds their normal income.


This is ironic because fishermen are the one who face huge risks and are the real victims of the smuggling activities, whereas the syndicates and the agents which are the intellectual doers are safe and receive larger amount of money than the fishermen. Moreover, the exploitation of the under-aged fishermen made the situation worse. These young people are being used for their cheap labour and their ability to escape the Australian legislation. They have to be released from the detention centres if they are proved minor and have to be sent back to Indonesia.


The transit state status has shaped Indonesia’s foreign policy. The Indonesian government only allows illegal migrants to stay in Indonesia if they have applied for the asylum seeker status at the UNHCR office. If otherwise, they would be detained and processed in the detention centres. Furthermore, the fact that Indonesia has not ratified the Refugee Convention and its Protocol makes it clearer that it does have the obligation to provide assistance to refugees and asylum seekers in the country. Nonetheless, Indonesia has always been cooperative with International Organisations such as IOM and UNHCR in treating and processing asylum seekers.


What have been done? Indonesia and Australia have signed the 2006 Lombok Treaty which in principle addresses the issues of transnational crime including people smuggling. Both countries have also expressed the importance of suppressing the issue by stating joint statement on people smuggling at the 9th Australia-Indonesia Ministerial forum held in 2008. At multilateral level, both countries co-chaired the Bali Ministerial Conference on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. There are more than 40 countries participating in this forum and each state firmly acknowledged the importance of strengthening cooperation and law enforcement related to issues of people smuggling and trafficking in persons.


In conclusion, the writer firmly believes that both Indonesia and Australia will foster their bilateral cooperation on transnational crime to a greater level. Bearing in mind that both countries have strong history of cooperation, the towing back policy of the current Australian government which is opposed by the Indonesian government will find its way of compromise. Furthermore, Abbot has clearly stated that his administration respects Indonesia and its sovereignty, therefore there will be a win-win resolution to the problem.