The arrival on the Australian mainland of 43 asylum-seekers from West Papua, many with prominent dissident backgrounds in that troubled Indonesian province, is significant news for both Australian border security and Australian-Indonesian relations.
Neither government would have welcomed it, and both governments will do their best by overt and covert means to try to ensure that it does not happen again.
The planners of this voyage clearly outsmarted Australian border protection authorities, who will now do their best to make life as unpleasant as possible for the 43 who made it here.
Sending them to detention on Christmas Island is the first step in exemplary punishment, aimed at pressuring as many as can be persuaded to return. Or, in any case, deterring other West Papuans from following their example.
There are key differences between this group and previous unauthorised arrivals in Australia from Indonesia. First, the 43 are Indonesian nationals. Second, they have come direct from their country of claimed persecution, Indonesia, to Australia without passing through any third country.
So (as experts like former Justice John Dowd have already said) they fulfil the letter of the Refugee Convention to which Australia is signatory, and so have a strong prima facie case for scrupulously correct consideration by the Australian Government of their refugee claims.
Yet, already, the government is dishonouring such obligations, in denying refugee claims have been made, and in sending the group hastily to mandatory processing detention on Christmas Island, beyond the reach of Australian legal support, NGO support and support from the small West Papuan expatriate community here. In the isolation of Christmas Island detention, these 43 hapless people (whose faces we were yesterday not allowed to see, again recalling recent years’ abuses of human rights by border protection agencies) can be more effectively pressured by Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs interrogators into accepting outcomes more to DIMIA’s taste: i.e., their voluntary return to West Papua by agreement with Indonesia (which would of course guarantee their protection against reprisals). And if members of the group refuse such “safe return”, they can look forward to long periods of punitive detention at Christmas Island. Nothing has really changed.
Such dirty tactics on the government’s part give a lie to DIMIA’s much-vaunted recent claims of a new humanitarian approach to border protection. DIMIA will do everything possible, once the news of the voyage fades from public memory - as it inevitably will in a few days - to evade and circumvent Australia’s legal and humanitarian obligations.
Much of the border authorities’ rage will come from their having been so comprehensively outwitted by West Papuans in an outrigger canoe.
No one would have predicted that such a flimsy craft could survive the 450km of open water in crossing from Merauke, due south to their landfall north of Weipa, halfway down the western side of Cape York Peninsula.
All the border protection authorities’ interception strategies would have been concentrated on the (safely immigration-excised) Australian islands of the Torres Strait. They would have expected such a group to try to island-hop to the Australian mainland, a much safer route navigationally, and would have relied on technical means and the monitoring capabilities of local police to pick them up on the way and quietly return them to West Papua, out of the public eye.
DIMIA might well have even tried to do the same after the landing on Cape York, had not the Torres News aircrew providentially captured, indisputably, on film, the evidence of the group’s arrival on Australian land. It was then impossible to try to claim (a claim which might have been advanced, had the media exclusion zone succeeded) that the vessel had been picked up at sea before it reached Australia’s 12-mile territorial waters.
The authorities’ greatest fear now must be that other endangered West Papuans may try to copy this remarkable feat. Australian border security resources will now be stepped up - with the full support of the Labor Opposition, no doubt - in the open waters between West Papua and the Gulf of Carpenteria, joining waters north of Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef as priority areas of Australian ocean surveillance, and the discouragement by overt and covert means of passage of suspected illegal entry vessels (SIEVs).
One may also expect that DIMIA, Australian Federal Police and Australian Secret Intelligence Service disruption activities will be initiated or stepped up in West Papua, with a view to detecting and perhaps helping Indonesian authorities covertly to disrupt such attempted voyages. There is no reason to think that the questionable Australian disruption techniques used in Indonesia in 1999-2001, on which the Senate never got proper answers from Australian agencies, will not be used again.
Would Australians tolerate such ruthless border protection techniques against our most vulnerable near neighbours? Possibly, if we can pretend that we did not know about it.
Tony Kevin holds degrees in civil engineering, and in economics and political science. He retired from the Australian foreign service in 1998, after a 30-year career during which he served in the Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s departments, and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He is currently an honorary visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in Canberra. He has written extensively on Australian foreign, national security, and refugee policies in Australia’s national print media, and is the author of the award-winning books A Certain Maritime Incident – the Sinking of SIEV X, and Walking the Camino: a modern pilgrimage to Santiago. His third book on the global climate crisis, Crunch Time: Using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era was published by Scribe in September 2009.