Outcry after Australia takes ‘sugar off the table’ in an effort to deter would-be refugees

PM Tony Abbott is refusing to resettle asylum-seekers travelling through Indonesia

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The Independent Online

First, Australia prevented asylum-seekers from landing on its shores. Then, it turned them back at sea. Now it is refusing to resettle people travelling via Indonesia, the region’s main transit country – even those already deemed refugees by the United Nations.

The latest hard-line measure is aimed at deterring asylum-seekers from even making the journey to Indonesia, and was condemned as undermining the spirit of the UN Refugee Convention. The leader of the Australian Greens, Christine Milne, said it was “appalling... and cruelty writ large”.

The crackdown affects those who registered with the UN in Jakarta after 1 July this year. The right-wing government of the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott has already slashed the annual refugee intake from 20,000 to 13,750. Now, it is “taking the sugar off the table”, in an effort to deter those intent on reaching Australia via Indonesia, Scott Morrison, the Immigration Minister, told ABC radio.

UN figures show that asylum-seekers in Indonesia come predominantly from Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia and Iraq. Australia was one of the first countries to pledge support for the US’s efforts to “degrade” the Isis terrorist group in Iraq. It has condemned Iran’s human rights record in strong terms. Such ironies appear lost on Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison. Indonesia has long been the transit country of choice for many asylum-seekers from the Middle East and south Asia, who have paid people smugglers to transport them to Australia by boat across the Indian Ocean.

Since being elected last year, the Abbott government has made good on a pledge to “stop the boats” – by intercepting them at sea, or working with Indonesia to prevent them even leaving those shores. Those who have managed to enter Australian waters have been flown to the Pacific islands of Nauru or Papua New Guinea for processing. Such people have long been branded “illegals” (although it’s not illegal to travel to a safe country and seek asylum) and “queue-jumpers” – trying to reach Australia ahead of those seeking refugee status through UN channels outside the country.

Now even those who join that queue – in Indonesia, at least – are to be barred.  According to the UN, as of last April 10,623 refugees and asylum-seekers were in that country, awaiting resettlement. They now face a longer wait, and no hope of ever reaching Australia, one of the few countries in the region to have signed the Refugee Convention.

Refugees receive little official support in Indonesia, and are not allowed to work. People who arrived after 1 July, warned Mark Gillespie, of Australia’s Refugee Action Collective, will “face the choice of just rotting there or going back to face their persecutors [in their home countries].”

However, Mr Morrison said the aim was to “strip people-smugglers of a product to sell to vulnerable men, women and children”. Australia’s northern neighbour was clearly unimpressed by Mr Morrison’s announcement. An Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman said: “This is Australia’s policy and it will be implemented by them alone.” Indonesia believes the refugee issue in the region “can only be effectively  addressed through a comprehensive approach, through the origin, transit and destination countries”, he added.

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