The representative for the largest refugee group in Indonesia says asylum seekers are deterred by Australia’s policy of turning back boats, but called on the Albanese government to increase its humanitarian intake and consider including refugees in a new visa lottery.
Labor’s decision this week to abolish temporary protection visas has prompted the federal opposition to warn that people-smuggling networks in the region would be energised by the news.
Refugee leader Ezat Ahmadi fronts a peaceful protest in Indonesia.
The change affects about 19,000 people who have been on temporary protection visas for up to a decade and will finally be able to become permanent residents in Australia.
Only asylum seekers who arrived in Australia before Operation Sovereign Borders took effect in late 2013 will be eligible, and the government insisted it would not soften the decade-long policy of turning around boats entering the country without authorisation.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealed the interception by Australian Border Force of two boats in December and January from Indonesia, on which Iraqi and Indian nationals were on board as well as Indonesian crew.
However, Ezat Ahmadi, who represents the 7000-plus Afghan Hazara refugee community in Indonesia, said on Thursday they would not be rushing to get on boats for Australia after the policy shift in Canberra.
Refugees demonstrate outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta last June.Credit:AP
“The refugees will never go by boat to Australia. It is impossible,” said the 32-year-old refugee leader, who fled Afghanistan seven years ago and has led peaceful protests in Jakarta.
“It is illegal and they want to be processed by the UNHCR [refugee agency].”
Persecuted in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and unable to go back, the Hazaras comprise more than half of 14,000 refugees in Indonesia, many of whom have been stranded there for years, not permitted to work and with limited rights.
Instead of seeking out people traffickers and trying to make the perilous journey south, Ahmadi said refugees in Indonesia wanted Australia to increase its refugee quota and cease its refusal to accept asylum seekers who arrived in Indonesia after July 1, 2014.
“The Australian government is also responsible for the situation of refugees of Indonesia,” he said.
“We hope that the third countries who signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol [for refugees] accept their responsibility and pay attention to the refugees.”
Including refugees in Indonesia in a newly unveiled visa lottery scheme for foreign workers would also be welcomed and could “rescue some refugees from [an] unknown future”, he said.
The majority of the 19,000 refugees who will be able to become permanent residents come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
Since the announcement, the Coalition has accused Labor of dismantling a key pillar of Operation Sovereign Borders.
“Even if you try and package this up that only so a certain group of people will now get the right or the ability to seek permanency here in Australia, you’re still sending a very clear message that the people smugglers will pick up and they will interpret it and they will prosecute to the people that they’re trying to get on boats,” shadow home affairs minister Karen Andrews said on Thursday.
Andrews also quizzed Prime Minister Anthony Albanese about evidence provided by Vice Admiral David Johnston in Senate estimates hearings that the Navy was providing “surge” support to the Operation Soverign Borders in the form of aircraft surveillance and additional ships in Australia’s northern waters.
“Doesn’t this prove that Labor’s policies to end the deterrent of temporary protection visas provides an incentive to people smugglers to restart their evil trade?” she asked.
But Albanese said the government would be “tough on borders without being weak on humanity”.
“When the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs was asked about whether the department advised against the changes [to TPVs] … he announced as crisply as he could in one word – no.”
The Indonesian Maritime Security Agency, Bakamla, is due to conduct its annual joint patrols with Border Force in April, it said in a statement on Thursday. It did not say whether patrols would be intensified as a result of Australia’s shift on visas.
Six boats from Sri Lanka with 183 people on board were stopped in Australian waters between May and August as the south Asian island endured an economic crisis of unprecedented severity.
Sri Lanka Navy spokesman Captain Indika De Silva said on Thursday officials were continuing to work with Australian authorities and their own intelligence agencies and police, but there had not been any more attempts to reach Australia since then.
“Now they know it is difficult to go to Australia because of the Australian law,” he said.
With Karuni Rompies
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