Friday, April 8, 2011

Fortress Asia? The Bali Process Proceeds

Last week,the Fourth Bali Regional Ministerial Conference on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons, and Related Transnational Crime brought together representatives from thirty-two Asian and Middle Eastern countries as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration. The Bali Process is led by Australia and Indonesia and funded by Australia, the United States, New Zealand and Japan. At the meeting, the Ministers agreed to create an inclusive non-binding regional cooperation framework to "reduce irregular movement through the region."
Created in response to the "large numbers of illegal boat arrivals run by people smuggling operations in the Asia-Pacific region," the Bali Process takes a national security approach to issues of people smuggling. Of the group's nine aims, the first six relate to deterrence of "illegal movements" and people smuggling. The last three are more humanitarian in nature, suggesting protection of trafficking victims over others, increasing opportunities for legal migration, and encouraging the adoption of best practices in "asylum management." This emphasis gives rise to particular concern in Asia, many of whose nations have not signed on to the UN Refugee Convention.
The "illegal boat arrivals" described above number in the thousands in Indonesia, and include asylum seekers and migrants seeking to get to Australia. People smugglers have worked with impunity in Indonesia, as officials often took bribes to overlook their immigration violations. Undoubtedly, this situation was a central reason for the creation of the Bali Process.
It seems that yesterday the Process had an impact; Indonesia's legislature passed a broad new immigration bill that will go into force within 30 days. Though I've not seen the law itself, news articles indicate that it takes a criminalization approach to people smuggling. The new law defines the crime broadly, including anyone who enters the country with undocumented migrants, whether freely or under duress. The punishments for conviction of people-smuggling are harsh; a minimum of 5 and maximum of 15 years in prison and fines of up to nearly $175,000. To address the problem of corruption, the law provides that immigration officials who deliberately neglect standard operating procedures to assist in people smuggling can be criminally prosecuted. These officials may also be imprisoned for failing to flag fake identity documents or visa sponsorships. The law also apparently includes quite restrictive provisions relating to refugees, including limitations on movement and a 10-year maximum stay in Indonesia before deportation.
Though the harms perpetrated in the course of human smuggling are many and great, Indonesia's solution seems misguided. Criminalization of people smuggling should go hand-in-hand with expansion of safe and legal migration routes and strong protections for those subject to smuggling. And if Indonesia's new law is any indication of the approach its other members intend to take, the Bali Process presents significant cause for concern.

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