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Suaka as written a letter to the editor of The Jakarta Post regarding an opinion article published on 13 March 2014 about asylum seekers.

[Update: The letter was published on 22 March 2014]

Dear Editor

On behalf of Suaka, the Indonesian Civil Society Network for Refugee Rights Protection, I wish to correct some points made by Pak Hikmahanto Juwana in his opinion piece entitled “Australia breaches RI sovereignty?“, published on Thursday, March 13, 2014. I do not make any comments on Pak Hikmahanto’s analysis of international law in relation to Indonesia’s sovereignty. However, he has made some errors in reference to asylum seekers.

“Asylum Seekers” is the term generally used for people who wish to make an application for refugee status to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), claiming that they need international protection because of persecution for one or more of the reasons set out in Article 1A of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Those grounds are persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Asylum seekers are not “illegal migrants” merely because they do not possess the correct passports and visas. Some people who may need international protection as a refugee may have never had papers or even the opportunity to obtain them. For example, if someone is born stateless or to an ethnic group that is not recognized by a state, where they have been systematically discriminated against, they may have been unable to get a birth certificate or any form of ID, let alone a passport or visas. Others who may be on political watch lists may not be able to escape under their own names. Each case is different, and, in Indonesia, the UNHCR is responsible for assessing each claim for refugee status by registered asylum seekers.

Further, statelessness refers to the status under international law of an individual who is not considered as a national by any state. UNHCR notes that although stateless people may sometimes also be refugees, the two categories have separate legal characteristics. UNHCR considers both groups to be persons of concern. While Indonesia is not a party to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons nor the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, the UNHCR office in Indonesia is working with the Government of Indonesia on this issue.

Because Indonesia is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol, asylum seekers and refugees (and stateless people) here face difficulties staying in the country. For various reasons, some may choose the make the dangerous boat journey to Australia in an attempt to seek effective protection there. However, the Australian Government, as a signatory to the Refugees Convention cannot exempt itself from its obligations under international law simply by labeling the asylum seekers as “illegal immigrants” and pushing them back to Indonesia.

In January this year, the UNHCR made a statement as follows regarding the reported “turn backs”:

UNHCR is seeking details from the Australian authorities about recent media reports of the Australian navy forcing boats, presumed to be carrying asylum-seekers on their way to Australia, back to Indonesian territorial waters, as well as reports of plans to buy and provide vessels for future push-backs.

UNHCR would be concerned by any policy or practice that involves pushing asylum-seeker boats back at sea without proper consideration of individual needs for protection. Any such approach would raise significant issues and potentially place Australia in breach of its obligations under the Refugee Convention and other international law obligations.

Suaka notes that the protection of asylum seekers and refugees is a regional human rights issue that goes beyond merely focusing on the crime and the sovereignty of individual countries’ borders. Bilateral and regional cooperation to address irregular people movements must take a rights-based approach to develop a regional solution. The measures put in place must provide fundamental human rights protections as well as adequate support and assistance for asylum seekers and refugees, rather than leaving them without any hope or means of survival.

Yours faithfully