Bali conference fails to deal with real issues



The Australia-Indonesia sponsored Ministerial Conference on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime held in Bali, February 27-28, failed to provide any real answers to the problems it was ostensibly held to consider.

The conference was attended by representatives from 35 Third World countries and two First World countries (Australia and New Zealand).

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri made a veiled swipe at the Australian government on February 27 when she criticised "impatient governments taking unilateral action" against asylum seekers. While just about everyone else interpreted this as a reference to Australia's handling of the Tampa affair and the use of Pacific countries by Australia to dump unwanted asylum seekers, foreign minister Alexander Downer repeatedly asserted to the media that Megawati hadn't been referring to Australia because he had been told by a "senior source" that she was making a more general statement which didn't refer to any one country in particular.

The conference focused on ways to fight people smuggling, improving police cooperation, sharing intelligence and tightening border controls and visa requirements. Participants discussed how thousands of asylum seekers can be returned to their countries of origin. Countries that don't have laws specifically covering people smuggling were urged to introduce them.

Downer announced on February 28 that he would ask the Governor-General Peter Hollingworth to appoint a diplomat to the new position of ambassador for people smuggling issues. Downer will recommend that the current ambassador to Manila, John Buckley, should be given the job. The envoy will be responsible for developing policy on combating people smuggling, focusing on the Asia-Pacific region.

Two further outcomes of the conference were reported in the media:

  • New Zealand, fearing that it may be the next destination for asylum seekers arriving without authorisation, is planning legislation to tighten penalties for people smugglers. Anyone caught will be liable to 20 years in jail or fines of up to $100,000.

  • The Indonesian government announced it will start, in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to deport hundreds of "illegal migrants" back to countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Neither of these are solutions to the refugee crisis. The outcomes of the conference mean only more danger and uncertainty for asylum seekers. At a time when more people than ever before are facing death, torture, starvation and persecution, those countries which can offer them some hope of a future are making it harder to access than ever before.

Despite paying lip-service to humanitarian concerns for vulnerable people who are taken advantage of by "ruthless" people-smugglers, the focus of the conference was not on ensuring the safety and well-being of people fleeing their countries, or on solving the problems which create ever-increasing flows of people from poor countries to the wealthy First World.

There was no discussion about continued rich-country support for repressive governments in parts of Asia and Latin America, or the effects of war and economic sanctions on creating refugees in the Middle East.

Cracking down on the industry which assists people to flee their country will do little to stem the flow of people across borders. It will only make such travel more dangerous and life-threatening. As a result of this conference there will be more people drowning in overcrowded boats, as happened near Australia in October; more people being killed as they hold onto the undercarriage of trains, as recently happened to one asylum seeker on the way from France to England through the channel tunnel.

People smuggling is not the same as human trafficking. Asylum seekers travel willingly. People smugglers provide a service. It is overpriced and dangerous because it is illegal. The only way to undercut the people-smuggling trade is to wipe out the need for their services. Governments sincere in their concerns for asylum seekers should massively increase their intake of refugees. This should include responsibility for assisting them to safety from refugee camps.

Australian government legislation makes no distinction between the money-hungry sharks at the top of the people smuggling chain and those who crew the boats to Australia. Many of the latter are poor Indonesian fisher-people who have been forced out of the industry due to Australia's predatory fishing boundaries and harsh penalties for overstepping them. An Iranian man in Melbourne, himself a refugee, was recently convicted of people smuggling because he helped two of his friends get to Australia.

From Green Left Weekly, March 6, 2002.
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