Indonesia and Australia are beefing up cooperation in the maritime sector in an effort to improve search and rescue efforts for vessels carrying asylum seekers between the countries that are in distress.
The planned cooperation has roused suspicions that it will breach Indonesia’s sovereignty by allowing Australian vessels to easily enter Indonesian waters.
But the Defense Ministry has reaffirmed that the country’s sovereignty will be upheld.
“Security clearance to enter Indonesia’s waters is a must. The procedure to protect our sovereignty always comes first,” ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Hartind Asrin told the Jakarta Globe on Monday.
Discussions on maritime cooperation set for next month follow a meeting between President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Australian prime minister Julia Gillard in Darwin on July 2 and another meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers in Jakarta on July 16.
Dewi Wahab, the Foreign Ministry director for East Asia and Pacific affairs, said that cooperation on search and rescue efforts at sea, especially for Australia-bound vessels transporting asylum seekers that send emergency calls, was within the maritime cooperation framework.
“It will include cooperation on capacity-building and exchange programmes for Indonesian and Australian search and rescue personnel,” Dewi said. “The two countries have agreed that there is a need to uphold the safety of life at sea.”
She added, however, that there are legal implications that need more attention and that further details of the cooperation between the agencies involved would be discussed during the visit of a high-ranking Australian official to Jakarta.
Australian Defense minister Stephen Smith is slated to visit Jakarta early next month to meet with his Indonesian counterpart Purnomo Yusgiantoro.
Hartind said the defense ministers would discuss defense cooperation within the framework of the Lombok Treaty signed by the two countries in 2006, which includes declarations that Australia and Indonesia will respect each other’s territorial sovereignty. The meeting is an effort to maintain the two countries’ bilateral cooperation in defense, he said.
“However, we have not yet laid out the rules of engagement for this cooperation. We will hold inter-agency meetings prior to Smith’s visit to come up with the technical details,” Hartind said.
Apart from the ministry and the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), other agencies expected to take part in the discussions are the National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) and the Indonesian Maritime Security Coordinating Board (Bakorkamla).
“We need to be precise, because not all vessels transporting asylum seekers are really in an emergency situation when they send distress calls,” Hartind said.
Indonesia is a popular transit country for asylum seekers from conflict-prone nations in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa seeking refuge in Australia. The flow of asylum seekers has developed into a lucrative business for people-smuggling syndicates, taking advantage of Indonesia’s largely unpatrolled coastal areas and waters. Smugglers receive hefty payments from aspiring migrants to transport them illegally into Australian territory.
Hundreds of asylum-seekers died when several refugee boats sunk on their way to Australia from Indonesia.
Indonesia has been promoting the Bali Process as a regional mechanism that involves origin, transit and destination countries to address the flow of asylum-seekers traversing the region to Australia.
Gatot Prakoso, a spokesman for Basarnas, said his agency is not yet involved in substantive discussions about the planned cooperation and that as an agency operating at the technical level, it would wait for further implementation guidelines.
However, he said, joint search and rescue efforts and exercises in the maritime border areas with Australia have taken place for some time.
“We don’t look at the other aspects in carrying out our job but we focus on human safety,” Gagah said, adding that humanitarian obligations may require a relaxation of border security clearance.
“Asylum-seekers or not, it is a political matter. We will help them anyway solely on the basis of humanity,” Gagah said.
Indonesia is not a party to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, but government officials have repeatedly said that Indonesia would treat undocumented migrants and asylum-seekers in accordance with the principles laid out in the convention while their status as refugees is being determined and processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee office in Jakarta.
Last week during a fast breaking event at the Defense Ministry, Purnomo said that one item expected to be discussed during his meeting with Smith is how the nearest Indonesian or Australian ship will respond to an emergency call from outside their respective territorial waters.
Dewi said that when it comes to addressing the people-smuggling issue, Indonesia’s position that it is a regional problem is unambiguous.
“So we always stress a regional approach for resolution on this matter,” she said.
Despite bilateral agreements set up in addressing the flow of asylum-seekers, such as the now-abandoned agreement between Australia and Malaysia to set up an offshore asylum-seeker processing centre in the Southeast Asian nation, Dewi said it does not prevail over the regional mechanism.
“The bilateral agreement is complementary to the regional solution,” she said.
While asylum seekers get little mention in Indonesia’s political discourse, they are an explosive long-standing political issue in Australia that dominated elections in 2001 and again in 2010, a year in which there were a record 6,555 arrivals.
With an election in Australia due in 2013, Gillard is facing pressure to stem the flow of asylum-seekers entering Australian waters and also reduce the risk of further loss of life at sea.