Australia as a powerbroker on refugee protection in Southeast Asia: the relationship with Indonesia.

Author:Kneebone, Susan


Although Australia is keen to present itself as a leading power or hegemon and "norm entrepreneur" on refugee and asylum-seeker issues in the Asia-Pacific region, I argue that this self-perception is challenged by a close examination of Indonesia-Australia cooperation on these issues. There are two strands to this argument. First, relying upon the legal concept of global refugee protection, I argue that Australian-Indonesian cooperation is not explained primarily by power asymmetry and acquiescence with Australia's "burden-shifting" measures. Second, I refer to Thomas Pedersen's political concept of "cooperative hegemony," which focuses upon "ideational-institutional realism" as a lens through which to examine arrangements in regional co-operation. (1)

The regime of global refugee protection is conceived as a "global public good" under which states share the burden of such protection. (2) The concept of state burden or responsibility sharing underlies the Refugee Convention, (3) as noted in its Preamble and Article 35, and assumes "an expectation of reciprocity" between states. (4) However the current reality is that the burden of refugee protection is unevenly shared between states in the Global North and South, as most asylum seekers remain in countries close to their homes. This is largely a consequence of states in the Global North practising increasingly diverse non-entree measures. There is a view that the current global response to refugee protection, which includes "cooperative deterrence and non-entree policies" (5) reflects a "North-South divide" in which developed states conscript "less developed countries to act in ways that provide a critical support to the developed world's migration control project." (6) This argument assumes an asymmetry in power relationships, whereby cooperating states are persuaded to act in the interests of the developed states through a variety of mechanisms, including financial incentives, the provision of training, or deployment of officials.

In the case of Australia-Indonesia cooperation it has been argued that the relationship reflects an "incentivised policy transfer" (7) secured through substantial financial and diplomatic incentives. I argue that the metaphor of "incentivised policy transfer" is an incomplete explanation for Indonesia's apparent cooperation with Australia's deterrent policies.

A second strand of my argument is to focus on the role of states and institutional structures affecting the Australia-Indonesia relationship. Two regional institutions are potential agents of "cooperative hegemony": ASEAN (8) and the Bali Process. (9) Indonesia is a member state and leading player of ASEAN; Australia has many trading partnerships and agreements with ASEAN (10) but is not a member state. On the other hand, Australia and Indonesia co-chair the Bali Process, which also reflects a bilateral arrangement between the two countries.

In this article I show that ASEAN's conflicted response to refugees is reflected in Indonesia's national response. As I have previously argued, the Bali Process has thus far failed to establish itself as either a leading regional institution or as "norm entrepreneur" of refugee protection. (11) I contend that the Australia-Indonesia cooperation relationship mirrors the "institutional space" (12) created by the Bali Process, rather than being a model of "cooperative hegemony."

To make the argument against Australia's role as a regional hegemon, I examine three periods of the Australia-Indonesia relationship: from 2001 to 2008 (acquiescence with Australian policies of securitization of refugee and asylum-seeker issues); 2008 to 2013 (Indonesian prevarication in the face of increasingly aggressive Australian policies); 2013 to the present (Indonesia turns to the region during the 2015 Andaman Sea crisis).

Contextual Background

First some context for the discussion is needed. Indonesia and Australia have a shared history in refugee protection arising from the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) for Indo-Chinese Refugees, (13) which operated for over two decades from 1975. (14) This led to lasting legacies on refugee policy, which can be described briefly. In Australia it led to a clear preference for resettlement as a "durable solution" over territorial asylum-seeking. (15) Indonesia's role in refugee processing was a reluctant one; nevertheless it cooperated in the CPA and tolerated the screening of refugees on Galang Island under UNHCR supervision. (16) In particular, a presidential decree recognizing the need for refugee protection was issued in 1979.17 As this article demonstrates, Indonesia's role in refugee protection is still a conflicted mixture of tolerance and principled recognition, although it has allowed deterrent practices to develop.

There are two important contextual features of the Indonesia's situation vis-a-vis refugees. The first is that as the result of its geographical position, in contrast to other countries in the region, Indonesia is largely a transit country for Australia-bound refugees, including those coming from Malaysia to Indonesia. The route through Malaysia developed in response to the introduction of a stricter visa regime in Indonesia in the 2011 law (described below), which in turn led to more smuggling from Malaysia to Indonesia. (18) Indonesia therefore has a shared or mutual interest with Australia in controlling both in- and out-bound migration.

Second, unlike Malaysia and Thailand (both players with Indonesia in the Andaman Sea crisis of 2015), Indonesia is not primarily a destination country with large protracted refugee populations in need of "durable solutions." Currently Indonesia hosts relatively few (approximately 14,000) asylum seekers and refugees, which nevertheless represent a substantial increase in the last few years as a result of Australia's "containment" policies, explained below. Thailand by contrast has 105,935 refugees living in nine long-established refugee camps in four provinces along the Thai-Myanmar border. (19) There are urban-based refugees too, albeit in much smaller numbers. At the end of 2015, UNHCR in Thailand had registered 1,830 new urban arrivals. (20) In 2015, record numbers of refugees arrived in Malaysia, mostly as a result of the Andaman Sea crisis. As of June 2016, there were 150,700 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. (21)

Like Indonesia, neither Malaysia nor Thailand is a party to the Refugee Convention, and indeed it is suggested they have rejected the Convention as a European instrument. A legacy of the CPA (in which all three countries participated) is that countries in Southeast Asia perceive refugee resettlement as an obligation of the "international community." Within the region, refugees overlap with irregular migrant workers and stateless persons. As a category of forced migrant, the "refugee" is not well understood. (22)

All three countries are part of the Bali Process and member states of ASEAN. ASEAN takes a somewhat ambiguous approach to refugees. (23) On the one hand, refugees are included in the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) pillar of the ASEAN Community. The APSC subscribes to "a comprehensive approach to security, which acknowledges the interwoven relationships of political, economic, social-cultural and environmental dimensions of development" (24) Within the APSC refugees are constructed, both within a national security paradigm as "victims of conflict" and as beneficiaries of a "human security" approach, which recognizes the risks to regional harmony arising from gaps in economic development.

On the other hand, refugee rights are provided in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD). (25) The AHRD, Article 2, provides guarantees for the very freedoms that are at the base of the need for refugee status in the region, namely freedom from discrimination on the basis of "race, gender, age, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic status, birth, disability or other status" Article 14 of the ADHR enshrines the principle of non-refoulement when it states without qualification, "No person shall be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" Articles 15 and 16 refer to the right to freedom of movement and specifically to the right to seek asylum.

As stated, Indonesia's response to Australia on refugee issues is largely referenced to its position as a transit country. However, Indonesia has long-standing experience with "forced" migration as internal migration and as outward-bound labour migration, which overlaps with the issue of human trafficking, which it has been addressing since at least 2002. Indonesia is also considered to be a leader within ASEAN, particularly in the APSC area, as a result of its strategic location in the Straits of Malacca, and its interest in regional and maritime security. (26)

Within the region, Australia has concluded other bilateral agreements that extend Australia's deterrent policies to asylum seekers to processing in off-shore sites. This is both a legacy of and the continuation of a policy of discouraging on-shore or "spontaneous" asylum seekers, which began from Australia's experience with the CPA. During the 1990s Australian policies became increasingly focussed on containing refugees in transit to Australia in offshore locations. The "Pacific Strategy," as it was initially termed, arose from bilateral relationships recorded in memorandums of understanding (MOUS) between Australia and Nauru and Australia and Manus Island (Papua New Guinea). It involved the interdiction and transfer of asylum seekers by the Australian Navy to "safe third countries," which were in reality cash-strapped Pacific Islands willing to enter into arrangements with Australia. Under these MOUS the Australian government directed and financed the detention and processing of asylum seekers in offshore...

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