THE Indonesian government is growing impatient with the 10,000 or more asylum seekers using its country as a waiting room, and wants Australia to accept more of them to reduce the numbers.
The deputy head of the high level Human Trafficking, Refugees and Asylum Seekers desk, Johnny Hutauruk, told The Saturday Age this week that both the large number of asylum seekers, and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s pledge to send them back to Indonesia, threatened his country’s sovereignty.
Hutauruk’s office, part of Indonesia’s Co-ordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, was created in March in response to what is viewed as a growing domestic problem in a country that struggles to feed and house 35 million of its own citizens.
The refugee influx, and Australia’s reluctance to accept them, has not until now been a big political issue in Indonesia.
But Hutauruk’s comments suggest it may soon become one in a way that could damage relations with Australia. Hutauruk said 5347 registered refugees lived in Indonesia, and perhaps double that number were unregistered. He expected more to arrive from Malaysia.
Indonesia’s views on the issue are beginning to strongly echo the ”border protection” debate in Australia. ”On the one hand we have to guard our sovereignty – we don’t want too many of these people here – but we also must respect their human rights,” Hutauruk said.
Most of the refugees were living in villages and towns in West Java, where the local residents were growing impatient.
Many refugees in Indonesia are Shiite muslims from Afghanistan and Iran, while Indonesia is predominantly Sunni, but Hutauruk denied the conflicts were over religion.
”Some are involved in criminal cases such as drugs and crime … sometimes they marry locals, but they’re not legal marriages,” he said.
”The most important solution is to reduce the number here because they all want to go to Australia. The solution is to open the doors.”
That view reinforces Indonesia’s strong aversion to Abbott’s plan to push back boats. Asked, though, whether harsher policies in Australia would reduce the numbers in Indonesia by discouraging people from coming in the first place, Hutauruk conceded, ”It’s possible.”
His organisation was also seeking help from agencies such as the Indonesian navy to increase patrols to the country’s north, he said.
The Greens are claiming vindication on asylum seekers, with their policy of onshore processing and an increased humanitarian intake from Indonesia and Malaysia being backed in many of the submissions to prime minister Julia Gillard’s expert panel.
Barrister Julian Burnside yesterday endorsed Cathy Oke, the Greens candidate in the Melbourne byelection, as former prime minister Malcolm Fraser and a host of refugee organisations appeared before the expert panel in Carlton.
Burnside praised the Greens for proposing ”a safe and lasting regional solution”, while Fraser called for a higher refugee intake from Indonesia and Malaysia and increased funding for the United Nations’ refugee body.
”This year, we have only resettled 61 people from the 1200 recognised refugees in Indonesia. Increasing the number of people we resettle from Indonesia and Malaysia is the only way to stop people getting on boats,” Fraser said in a submission to the panel.