Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Should Indonesia host Australia’s asylum seekers?

The Australian government is still looking for a suitable location to build a regional processing center for asylum seekers, and Indonesia would do well to raise its hand. Although Australia prefers the center not be in a transit country such as Indonesia, Jakarta should consider the benefits to be gained from convincing Canberra that Indonesia would be a better location than, for instance, East Timor. In fact, Australia has already indicated the value of working with Indonesia, investing $28 million just to enhance ties with Indonesia over the issue.

Should Indonesia be willing to take this step today, Australia would most certainly agree for reasons of political stability, proximity and human resource capacity.

Indonesia is in a unique and powerful position, particularly given the current political climate in Australia, to propose its own terms to the benefit of its citizens.

The government of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard would likely accept them out of the need to temporarily resolve this issue and stand the Labor Party in good stead for the Aug. 21 elections.

The perceived need in Australia for such a center is good news for Indonesia because it opens opportunities for economic development, resolution of social issues and an upgrade of Indonesia’s capacity to handle human trafficking.

A processing center would contribute to Indonesian economic development, particularly in the area where it was established. The center would provide business opportunities and jobs during its construction, maintenance and operation.

Should Indonesia make a successful bid, it could expect to receive something akin to Australia’s current offshore detention budget, which in the next four years is estimated to be as much as $790 million, with $358 million allocated for 2010-11 alone.

Although the budget for offshore management is expected to be just $156 million in 2011-12 due to a decline in the number of asylum-seeker arrivals, this is still good for Indonesia.

The construction of the center could see Indonesian companies receiving at least $132 million if it is as big as the Christmas Island detention center but budgeted to cost only one-third as much.

Indonesian airlines could pocket almost $5 million a year, the amount Australia spent chartering flights to move asylum seekers offshore in 2005 and 2006 alone.

Indonesia’s food industry would benefit as the center could generate revenue of about $2.7 million a year if the facility houses 1,500 asylum seekers and the food budget is $5 a day per asylum seeker.

In addition to the economic benefits to the business sector, the center also would give Indonesian NGOs the opportunity and aid to initiate social development projects at the center in areas such as education and human rights.

For these economic opportunities to have a more positive impact for Indonesians, it would be important that the center be established in a poor area such as East Nusa Tenggara and employ locals in conjunction with Australian immigration officers.

Although Australia may argue differently based on considerations of cost, security or location, Indonesia ultimately holds the final say.

The center would help Jakarta solve a variety of social issues caused by those asylum seekers temporarily staying in Indonesia, sometimes for years, while waiting for a boat to Australia.

It also would significantly boost Indonesia’s capacity to handle human trafficking and border security. Australia would provide aid to buy new patrol boats, surveillance planes and other operational equipment.

Not only that, Australia also would have to train Indonesian police and immigration officers in processing asylum seekers and investigating people smuggling.

For this to work, several requirements should be met. Indonesia would require a commitment from Australia that Canberra would take responsibility for whatever problems arose.

Indonesia also would need to make sure that projects and jobs related to the construction, maintenance and operation of the center were contracted to Indonesian companies and people.

For its part, Australia would need to work closely with Indonesian human rights and anticorruption NGOs to ensure Indonesia complied with Australian human rights and anticorruption regulations.

By Muh Taufiqurrohman who holds a master’s degree in international relations from Parahyangan Catholic University (UNPAR) in Bandung. Rebecca Lunnon is a graduate student at Monash University in Melbourne.

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