“people swap” deal between Indonesia and Australia harks back to earlier plans by the then-Labor government to exchange 800 asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat with 4000 refugees in Malaysia.
This policy was heavily criticised
by then-opposition leader Tony Abbott. It was also struck
down by the High Court due to legal arguments about the conditions for
asylum seekers in Malaysia.
With no details yet of the substance
of a possible people swap with Indonesia, it is unclear how this proposal
differs from Labor’s 2011 plan. However, there appear to be some key
distinctions - and similarities - worth noting. It appears that Indonesia is
taking a much stronger position on this issue. Comments
by Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an adviser to Indonesian vice president Boediono,
have highlighted Australia’s position as a rich nation and its status as a
Signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Indonesia is not a signatory to the
convention, and therefore asylum seekers in its territory may not have the same
levels of protection as they could obtain in Australia. This was a central
argument of the successful challenge to the earlier Malaysia people swap plan.
Entering into bilateral agreements on
asylum and migration has been tried and largely failed in other regions. Italy
was found to have breached
international human rights law when it signed an agreement with Libya to
accept asylum seekers intercepted at sea in 2009.
Malta’s plans to return Somalis by
plane to Libya was also stopped
by a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. Once an asylum seeker
arrives on the territory of a country such as Australia, that country has
certain obligations towards an asylum seeker that cannot be cancelled with the
stroke of a pen.
We also know that bilateral
agreements have their limitations. As others have pointed
out, the only way to address refugee movements is through regional
approaches that ensure the same treatment and conditions for asylum seekers
throughout the various countries they move through.
Making conditions in one country
different to others risks simply shifting refugee movements from one place to
another. We see this phenomenon happening now in the Horn
With Israel fencing off its Sinai
border, more asylum seekers are taking riskier routes through Libya and across
the Mediterranean sea to reach Europe. This has resulted in a higher number of
deaths at sea and an unknown number of deaths across dangerous desert
Simply “swapping” asylum seekers for
refugees is unlikely to be the panacea that the federal government hopes it
will be. The cost and logistics of such an arrangement are high, and the policy
itself will do nothing to improve longer-term conditions in Indonesia for the
many asylum seekers who will not come under such an arrangement.
Measures such as improving protection
for asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia, encouraging Indonesia to sign the
Refugee Convention and working towards regional arrangements through existing
schemes like the Bali Process must occur alongside any new policy arrangements.
Australia should also take leadership
in helping to deal with the conditions that force people to flee their homes.
Focusing on countries that people transit through overlooks the situations that
refugees are fleeing from: countries that continue to be ravaged by war or
Creating more obstacles for people
seeking protection leads to increases in the use of smugglers, as Hein de Haas
of the International Migration Institute has argued.
He, along with NGOs and refugee advocates, continue to highlight the need for
more safe and legal channels for people to seek protection - not less.
Developing policy through the prism
of asylum seekers being seen as a “burden” which must be shared ignores the
fundamental right everyone holds to seek and enjoy asylum. It also creates a
race-to-the-bottom scenario where all countries - including Australia - do all
they can to avoid responsibility and shift refugee protection to other
countries with fewer resources to handle large influxes of refugees.
As discussions on this policy
progress, we should reflect on criticisms made by Abbott of the original
Malaysia people swap deal as “policy on the run”. We should also consider
whether outsourcing Australia’s responsibilities for asylum seekers and
refugees is a sustainable policy that meets our own commitments to
international human rights.