Indonesia’s human rights record is regularly criticized, and for good reason. There is a lot of work to be done. However, on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers, it is Australia that is losing the moral high ground and sitting on the margins of accountability. Indonesia’s main grievances with its neighbor include having to play host to thousands of refugees and asylum seekers whom Australia refuses to settle and being the recipient of boat turn-backs that challenge Indonesia’s sovereignty and weaken bilateral cooperation.
Australia’s border protection policies have resulted in numerous standoffs with Indonesia during the past 14 years: since the Minasa Bone incident in 2003, Australia has been towing back boats, and since the Tampa affair in 2001, it has been using or proposing that other nations “store” asylum seekers – to put it crudely. Indonesia has become weary, and wary, of Australia’s exclusionary border protection policies, where incursions into Indonesian territory cause frequent tensions.
While Australia remains overtly hostile to refugees arriving by boat, and more deluded about its global impact, Indonesia, typically unwelcoming and unconcerned about refugees, has begun to frame their plight as worrying from an ethical point of view. The world’s third-largest democracy is less tolerant of Australia’s refoulement and more steadfast in its objections to border protection policies that are inconsiderate and at times antagonistic. Indonesia has shifted the discourse from bilateral cooperation and sovereignty to legality and ethics, apprehending the legitimacy of the international human rights regime. Australia has walked a fine line at the intersection between ethics and sovereignty, but is now on the margins of this discourse, leaving the new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, with the problem of finding a more humanitarian approach, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo with the opportunity to establish a deeper commitment to Indonesia’s own human rights issues and a role in the international community.
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