Amnesty International is calling on the Australian and Indonesian governments to ensure that any bilateral approach to managing asylum seekers is carried out in line with international human rights standards.

On 10 October 2009, a boat carrying more than 250 Sri Lankan asylum seekers was intercepted by Indonesian authorities after a direct telephone request phone by the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, to the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Unlike Australia, Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees. This means that the group of intercepted asylum seekers will not be able to seek protection from the Indonesian Government, and will not be granted many of the rights that asylum seekers are entitled to under international law.

“Although the boat was in Indonesian waters, it appears that its passengers were on their way to Australia to claim asylum,” said Dr Graham Thom, Amnesty International Australia’s Refugee Coordinator.

“If the Australian Government is going to continue to make these direct requests, it needs to be sure that the Indonesian Government is willing and able to provide adequate protection and durable solutions for people found to be in need of protection.”

Amnesty International is gravely concerned that in actively requesting that Indonesian authorities intercept the boat before it reached Australian waters, the Rudd Government appears to be signalling that international obligations to protect those fleeing persecution and seeking asylum need not always be met.

In Indonesia, this group of asylum seekers, including a pregnant woman and several children, will be placed in immigration detention until they are processed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Despite financial assistance from the Australian Government and the International Organisation for Migration, Indonesian detention centres are over-crowded and under-resourced.

Asylum seekers in Indonesia face arbitrary and indefinite detention until the UNHCR processes their claims. Amnesty International is concerned that the UNHCR has limited capacity in Indonesia and asylum seekers may be forced to spend extended periods in detention while waiting to apply for refugee status.

Asylum seekers whose claims are ultimately rejected by the UNHCR are returned to their country of origin, while successful applicants are registered as refugees and released into the Indonesian community.

Refugees in Indonesia do not have the right to work, send their children to school and have no recourse to a more permanent status. Their only hope of a durable solution is to be selected for resettlement to a third country through the UNHCR, a process that can take more than six years.

“In particular, Indonesia must not return people at risk of persecution in their country of origin. Additionally, refugees and asylum seekers must be granted access to the UNHCR and never be subjected to arbitrary detention,” said Dr Thom.

Amnesty International understands that population flows across the Asia Pacific region must be addressed through international cooperation and encourages the Rudd Government to work with its neighbours on this issue. However, the organisation maintains that human rights concerns must be acknowledged and prioritised in any regional cooperation.

UN statistics show that refugee numbers are increasing throughout the world. The Asia Pacific region will not be immune to this global trend, and Amnesty International urges all governments in the region to prioritise the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees when developing multilateral agreements to address increasing population flows.