Fourteen nations look to resolve regional boat people issue

In an attempt to address the boat people issue, Indonesia has invited 13 countries to meet and seek ways to prevent asylum seekers from embarking on perilous journeys by sea.

In a two-day international workshop titled Special Conference on the Irregular Movement of People, at the Foreign Ministry on Monday and Tuesday, representatives are expected to establish measures to protect asylum seekers and prevent human trafficking and people smuggling in the region.

The two-day workshop is also part of the so-called Bali Process, an initiative for dealing with people smuggling and human trafficking.

The event, jointly organized by the Foreign Ministry and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is being participated in by those countries most affected by the irregular movement of people in Asia Pacific — Indonesia, Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand — and those countries further afield — Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

“This conference is about a global problem that deals with irregular movements by sea, a problem we have in Southeast Asia. The statistics show we have more than 300,000 asylum seekers in Southeast Asia,” UNHCR Indonesia representative Manuel Jordão told a press conference in Jakarta on Thursday.

This is the second time Indonesia has held such an event. The first event, initiated by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, drew top officials from 13 countries, including Australia’s then-foreign minister Bob Carr.

The initial event produced the non-binding Jakarta Declaration, which underlined that the irregular movement of people in the region should be addressed as the shared responsibility of origin, transit and destination countries.

At the previous meeting, countries also agreed to impose tougher visa policies as part of a set of measures to curb growing people smuggling and human trafficking in the region.

The ministry’s director general for multilateral affairs, Hasan Kleib, said this year’s event was aimed at voicing Indonesia’s concerns, in particular on the increasing number of accidents involving boat people.

Hasan said Indonesian and Australian delegates might hold a bilateral discussion on the sidelines of the workshop, but Hasan was uncertain that the turn-back-the-boats policy — a contentious issue between the two countries — would be a discussion topic.

He added that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) would take part in the event.

“We have invited Iraq as an observer, considering some Iraqis [seeking asylum] have entered the region,” Hasan said.

According to Foreign Ministry data, there are 10,623 asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia, with most of them illegally entering the country by sea.

Indonesia recorded nine boat accidents involving 728 asylum seekers in 2012, while in the following year the number rose to 23 involving 615 victims.

“We’ve learned recently about zero entry, Operation Sovereign Borders and the turn-back-the-boats policy from Australia. From December 2013 to March 2014, there were seven occurrences of boats being turned back [to Indonesian waters],” Hasan said.

Last Wednesday, Indonesian Military (TNI) Commander Gen. Moeldoko was quoted on news portal as saying his Australian military counterpart had agreed to stop turning back boats carrying undocumented migrants.

However, Australian Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison rebuffed Moeldoko’s claim, insisting the policy remained unchanged, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

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