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Australia’s Refugee Resettlement Program from Indonesia Grossly Inadequate

by Takver - Australia Indymedia
The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the repression of Tamils in Sri Lanka is causing people to make a desperate and hazardous journey to Indonesia and then by overcrowded fishing boat to Australia. Australia has a policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers, but processes very few of the accredited UN refugees in Indonesian camps for resettlement in Australia.

Once again we are witnessing a public hysteria building about asylum seeker boat people seeking the safety of a new home in Australia. A new report Behind Australian Doors: Examining the Conditions of Detention of Asylum Seekers in Indonesia (PDF) describes poor conditions across many Indonesian immigration detention facilities. Produced by lawyer and refugee advocate Jessie Taylor, the report highlights cramped conditions, grossly inadequate hygiene and sanitation, rodent infestations, inadequate and inappropriate food, polluted water, and a lack of medical care available to asylum seekers. Pitifully few people from these camps are selected for resettlement in Australia with an average of 50 people per year achieving resettlement.

Related: Help bust the asylum seeker myths on Melbourne Cup day

Department of Immigration and Citizenship figures indicate that in 2008-2009 there was resettlement of 35 people from Indonesia. According to Taylor, “these figures display the gross inadequacy of Australia’s resettlement program in dealing with the ‘queue’ in Indonesia. It must come as no surprise that, given the apparent impossibility of resettlement, asylum seekers make the frightening decision to attempt the boat journey, channeling profit to people smugglers”.

The main recommendation of the report is that the Australian Government needs to install a controlled, robust and fair assessment and resettlement process from Indonesia to Australia, wiping out the demand for people smugglers and offering an alternative to the dangerous and life risking choice of a crossing by boat. The report also recommended Australia increase its resettlement intake slightly to accommodate those found to be genuine refugees, in accordance with international obligations.

“Given that there is no sign of a decrease in global refugee numbers, it is in the best interests of all parties (except people smugglers) that Australia should increase its resettlement intake and bolster the processing capabilities and efficiencies of the UNHCR, taking a leadership role in the Asia-Pacific region, and satisfying its obligations under international law”, Taylor said.

“Conditions in asylum seekers’ accommodation ranges from acceptable to appalling”, said Taylor. “In the worst places, we saw babies and children behind bars, with filthy drinking water, deprived of basic education, malnourished and very, very frightened”.

“Particularly confronting were conversations with unaccompanied minors, many of whom are housed in immigration jails with adult male populations”, Taylor said. According to the report, families are generally housed in more appropriate accommodation, when there are women and babies. However, there are many 13 to 17 year old children in adult jails, slipping through the cracks because they are alone and do not have parents or siblings to look out for them. The report observes that many are orphans with no family at all, while some have families who sent them away from home after older siblings were killed.

Taylor expressed her surprise at the hesitance of asylum seekers to get on a boat. “On one thing, the Australian government and the asylum seekers agree completely: that it is a terrible idea to attempt the boat journey to Australia. Asylum seekers are horrified at the prospect, and are driven to make an attempt only after they are convinced at the hopelessness of their situation. At the moment, there is just no viable prospect of a safe, formal resettlement into Australia”.

Taylor and Schmidt are presently seeking funding to produce a documentary with the footage they have obtained.

"The Report of a visit to eleven places of detention in Indonesia, just released by lawyer and advocate Jessie Taylor - even in the context that some claims have been expressed by several other advocates since 2003 - stands as a clear and grave series of indictments against organisations and countries that are mandated to uphold the highest standards of human rights standards in the region," said Jack H Smit from WA Human Rights group Project SafeCom.

"We cannot do otherwise than point the finger of this indictment fairly and squarely at the following - and in this ranking of order as placed: (1) the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Indonesia, (2) the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Indonesia, (3) Australia as the only country that has signed the Refugee Convention and that funds operations of IOM and UNHCR in Indonesia, and (4) Indonesia - as a country that has an intent to become a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and that strives to advance further in signing and ratifying other International Conventions," spokesman Jack H Smit said.

Two asylum seeker boats are currently in the news. Merak is anchored off the Indonesian port of Merak and has 255 people on board. These people came recently from Sri Lanka and it is believed that over 90% have come out of the camps including Menik Farm.

According to Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne "They are deeply traumatised and fear being returned to camps if they hand them selves over to the Indonesian government. 3 people from this boat have been hospitalised and 5 people with little children have left the boat because of the children. Last week water was restricted and no medical care given for conjunctivitis which was sweeping through the boat. Over 30 cases reported on Friday."

Last Saturday Doctors arrived and provided treatment and the water restrictions were lifted. Pamela Curr said "IOM and indonesian officers are pressuring the people to disembark. However after living in camps in Sri Lanka these people are not ready to commit to camps in Indonesia." she said. "This boat has dropped out of the media gaze - please watch carefully as they need us to ensure that their rights are respected."

The other vessel is the Oceanic Viking run by Australian Customs which has 78 people on board, 37 of whom already hold UNHCR refugee status. Pamela Curr said that "Most of these people have been in Indonesia for years waiting for a place to call home. They are recognised as refugees but this is no guarantee of resettlement. Refugees have been warehoused in Indonesia since 2001 by first the Howard and then the Rudd Government." she said. "Eventually people realise that they must help themselves as no one else will help them. This is why the boats will continue to come from Indonesia where there are currently 2,107 people registered with UNHCR who are going nowhere."

Christmas Island Detention Centre

Photo by cactusdude666 on Flickr - Australia's Shame - Nov 2, 2009 According to Pamela Curr there are currently 50 people in Christmas island detention centres who hold UNHCR refugee cards.

Minister for Immigration Chris Evans announced on October 30 that the Christmas Island immigration detention centre will be increased from 800 to at least 2000 beds to cope with an influx of boat arrivals, especially asylum seekers fleeing Sri Lanka. "We've seen in recent weeks a surge of arrivals, particularly out of Sri Lanka as people seek to flee as what they see as persecution there and as a result we've had to deal with increasing numbers in recent months," he said. And in a media release he said "All irregular maritime arrivals are subject to mandatory detention at Christmas Island while health, identity and security checks are undertaken and claims for asylum are assessed."

The Christmas Island immigration detention centre was planned and built during the Howard years, but was not used until November 2008. According to Fr Frank Brennan in a column published in the Age (and later on Safecom) in August 2009 "There are now more than 700 asylum seekers on the island, mostly Hazaras from Afghanistan and Tamils from Sri Lanka. Six hundred are single males held in the immigration detention centre 23 kilometres from town. More than 100 live in family groups and are in "community detention" at the old "Construction Site" a few kilometres out of town. They are free to come and go. Unaccompanied minors live in town in house groups of four or five with a carer."

Immigration Department Detention Statistics as at 16 October 2009 say "Of the 1087 people in immigration detention on Christmas Island, 97 were children (aged under 18 years) - 33 were detained in the community under residence determinations and 64 were in alternative temporary detention in the community."

Amnesty International is deeply concerned over the immigration detention policies of the Rudd Labor Government. In launching their 2009 Annual Report, Claire Mallinson, the National Director of Amnesty International Australia, stated that:

" ...unaccompanied children are still routinely detained on the island ... It looks like a prison and feels like a prison ... It’s steel and barbed wire, and cameras are watching every move ... If you are fleeing from torture and abuse, it’s not the type of place you would find welcoming ... Processing could be done on mainland Australia. And we still discriminate against asylum seekers arriving by boat rather than plane."

Resettlement from Indonesia Facts

Australian resettlement from Indonesia amounted to
  • 2008-2009 35 people
  • 2007-2008 89 people
  • 2006-2007 32 people

Total resettlement 2001 - 2009 was 460 people: an average of 50 per year. This is a vary small proportion of the asylum seekers in Indonesia, many of them already accedited by the UN as refugees. The odds of resettlement in Australia are very small.


  • Media Release, November 3, 2009 - Report on Conditions in Indonesian Detention Centres
  • Email from Pamela Curr, November 2, 2009 - Boats and Facts
  • Department of Immigration - Managing Australia's Borders - Statistics
  • Media Release, Project Safecom, November 3, 2009 -SafeCom: Taylor's Report is a Grave Indictment
  • Photo by cactusdude666 on Flickr - Australia's Shame - Nov 2, 2009 - republished under Creative Commons Licence - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic
  • Photo by cactusdude666 on Flickr - Australia's Shame (no2) - Nov 2, 2009 - republished under Creative Commons Licence - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic

This article first published on Australia Indymedia

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