(Sydney) – Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott should ensure that the rights of asylum seekers and migrants are respected in any agreements with the Indonesian government. Abbott is slated to meet with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta on September 30, 2013, in his first international trip as Australia’s prime minister.
Human Rights Watch urged Abbott to use the visit to raise longstanding human rights concerns in Indonesia, including the deterioration of religious freedom, restrictions on freedom of expression, and impunity for abuses committed by security forces.
“Prime Minister Abbott should use his first foreign trip as prime minister to put human rights at the heart of Australia’s foreign policy,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “He should engage with Indonesian President Yudhoyono so that Australia can help improve, not impede, respect for human rights in Indonesia.”
Of particular concern in Indonesia is the lack of protection mechanisms for asylum seekers and migrants, including unaccompanied children, Human Rights Watch said. As a result, most asylum seekers and migrant children are subject to arbitrary and indefinite detention in squalid conditions. Human Rights Watch has documented repeated torture and other abuse by guards at Indonesian immigration facilities.
Since 2008, there has been a more than 2,000 percent increase in the number of asylum seekers reaching Indonesia, yet Indonesia has no asylum law or procedure, and has not integrated refugees in the country. The United Nations refugee agency provides refugee status determination in Indonesia, but asylum seekers often face lengthy delays. Even when asylum seekers are released from detention – a process that can take over a year – they cannot legally work or move freely in the country, and their children cannot go to school.
“Stopping the boats” was a key component of Abbott’s election campaign, and his Coalition party proposed a budget of A$20 million (US$18.73 million) to curtail people smuggling by buying dilapidated boats in Indonesia and offering bounties for information about people smugglers. The coalition has said it will give the Australian navy authority to turn boats around “where it is safe to do so,” but the often dangerously dilapidated vessels used by asylum seekers would almost invariably be unsafe if towed back into international waters.
Human Rights Watch urged Abbott to unequivocally reject maritime push-backs onto the high seas, and instead encourage Indonesia to sign and ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention without delay.
“If Australia really wants to address the problem, then it should help Indonesia develop its capacity to assess asylum claims and process refugees,” Pearson said. “That’s a better policy than schemes such as paying bounties and buying boats to deter sea travel.”
Abbott should also raise concerns about growing religious intolerance in Indonesia, including attacks against Ahmadiyah, Bahai, Christian, and Shia and Sufi Muslim minorities, Human Rights Watch said. Local government authorities have closed down more than 400 churches since Yudhoyono came to office in 2004. Abbott should urge Yudhoyono to order local governments to cease demolitions and blockades of houses of worship and revoke discriminatory regulations against religious minorities.
Australia is a major security partner with Indonesia, providing military assistance and training to Indonesia’s armed forces and counterterrorism units. A recent trial of special forces soldiers for multiple murders highlighted the difficulties in prosecuting military personnel for serious human rights abuses. The military justice system in Indonesia lacks transparency, independence, and impartiality. Abbott should urge the Indonesian government to urgently amend its 1997 military tribunal law so that soldiers accused of serious rights abuses against civilians be tried in civilian courts.
Abbott has said that if Australia is “going to be a robust democracy … then we've got to allow people to say things that are unsayable in polite company.” He should similarly encourage the Indonesian government to uphold the right to free expression. The Indonesian government has imprisoned at least 100 people for peaceful acts of expression in the Moluccas Islands and Papua, while journalists and critical voices have been silenced through charges of criminal defamation.
“If Abbott champions free speech in Australia, there’s no reason he can’t take up the defense of those imprisoned for their peaceful political views in Indonesia,” Pearson said. “Free speech should be for all, everywhere.”