Fri, 22 Dec 2000

Australia in dilemma over Papuans

By Dewi Anggraeni

MELBOURNE, Australia (JP): In the last few weeks, whenever Australia's prime minister John Howard is able to grab a moment of respite away from the media limelight, his immigration minister, Phillip Ruddock, has his bad hair day exposed.

Earlier this month, as reported in this newspaper on Dec. 14, 163 boat people were feared drowned in a cyclone off Australia's north-western coast. They were allegedly refugees from the Middle East on their way to Australia, reportedly on an Indonesian craft.

And Ruddock, thinking he saw a chance to show his better side, told the media that the events had vindicated his government in its recent graphic warnings against people smuggling.

Ruddock was wrong. Greens senator Bob Brown promptly denounced him as callous and lacking in compassion. Numerous community and church leaders accused him of doing nothing to help those unfortunate refugees.

Unfortunately in this case, Ruddock has a less than flattering track record, though not entirely of his own doing.

Late last year the government was forced to open a new detention center in Woomera, in the far north of South Australia, after waves of boat people arrived on Western Australian shores.

The arrival of refugees and asylum seekers, wherever they are from, always presents a dilemma for the government. If the refugees are allowed to stay, the government will field anger and criticisms from those who are going through the legitimate channels in sponsoring their relatives, friends or employees.

These people who are still waiting, are upset with the refugees who in their view are allowed to "jump queues". Further down the track the government may have to address various phenomena of growing social discontent.

These usually come from those Australians who become disenfranchised by economic globalization and other economic crises, and conveniently pile the blame of their dire situation on the newcomers, and subsequently on the government for allowing them in.

On the other hand, if the refugees are refused entry, anger and criticism will come from church leaders, human rights spokespersons, ethnic communities and segments of Australian society who believe that people who are unfortunate enough to have to flee their homelands should be treated with compassion and dignity.

In fact, problems from last year's arrivals has already reared its heads. On June 8, this year, from four separate break outs, around 500 asylum seekers escaped from the Woomera Detention Center in South Australia.

The suspected illegal immigrants, mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan, then staged a noisy but peaceful protest in the center of the town, then refused to go back to the Center.

Then, on Dec. 8, stories of abuse by the management of the detention center came out simultaneously in various media placing the government in a very bad light where human rights were concerned.

In general a government in Australia will sooner or later finds itself at odds with organizations and lobby groups which have the issues of human rights as their focus. The party or parties in power understandably have to be more careful in their engagement with other powers in the region, and they sometimes have to have policies which put economic interest, national security and regional stability before compassion and human rights.

In the case of West Papua's independence aspirations, the government has again been in the firing line from various human rights groups in the country, who accuse the government of pandering at worst, and acquiescence at best, to the Indonesian government.

Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer have again reiterated their support for Indonesia's national integrity, discouraging any secessionist movement.

The government is not only reluctant to upset Indonesia, especially after what happened in East Timor, it is also not keen on the possibility of having to be militarily involved in another trouble spot in the region.

The Timor exercise has cost the government its promise of tax cuts to the taxpayers -- no less than an election promise. It is just lucky that Timor enjoyed such a strong support in the community. The next spending spree may not be such a novelty.

And no less important, the government does not want to have another influx of refugees. Rightly or wrongly, it believes that if Indonesia ever disintegrates, there will inevitably be a bloodbath, and problems that may ensue will make Woomera and other existing refugee problems look like child's play.

It is not the government who sympathizes with the Papuan independence movement, as some have alleged. It is more or less the same segments of Australian society who express sympathy for their cause. They were horrified by the atrocities in East Timor, they now balk at what they see as the government's cold- heartedness towards the refugees.

But they nonetheless have the luxury of not having to concern themselves with economic security, regional stability and good diplomatic relations with the neighbors.

The suspicions among certain people in Indonesia that Australia is supporting a secessionist movement, because it has its eyes on West Papua for its own territorial power purposes therefore do not add up.

Those who support the movement do not have territorial power expansion on their agenda, their main concern being cessation of human rights violations.

And they believe that Indonesia's military is suppressing dissent by physical violence. In reality, these people are angry with the government for not doing much to help, in their views at least.

The writer is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia.