ASEAN Beat

Indonesia Watch

Australia and Thailand are in talks over asylum seeker arrangements. It could be part of a drive toward a regional system.

Luke Hunt

While Australians argue among themselves over their government’s latest attempt to strike a regional deal on asylum seekers, Thailand has stepped up to the plate and says it is seriously interested in entering such an agreement with Canberra.

Bangkok’s beckoning follows negotiations between Australia and Malaysia to swap 800 asylum seekers for 4,000 refugees who have already been processed by the United Nations and are currently living in Malaysia.

Thailand is interested in a similar deal, which would effectively send people arriving by boat in Australian waters to the back of the asylum seeking queue and in a third country.

The prospect was raised at bilateral talks between Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and his Thai counterpart, Kasit Piromya, who suggested such a deal could be widened to incorporate other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation, adding the ‘five to one ratio is something that the rest of us will be interested to look at.’

For the first time since the 2002 Bali process, when a regional solution to people smuggling was first mooted, a multilateral approach may have found some traction. Thailand has about 110,000 people, mainly Burmese, spread across nine camps, while Malaysia has perhaps four times that with an enormous contribution from the Southern Philippines. About 92,000 people in Malaysia have been processed and would be eligible for refugee status in Australia.

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Critics in Australia argue that more safeguards need to be in place before asylum seekers can be sent for processing elsewhere in the region, and they’ve noted that the deal with Malaysia isn’t yet complete and still falls short of a proper regional framework.

This is highlighted by a decision to send 32 asylum seekers, recently intercepted off Scott Reef, to Christmas Island for identity checks before being moved to a third country. Australia won’t say which country, although moves are afoot to re-open an abandoned camp in Papua New Guinea.

Following the bilateral talks, Kasit said countries within Southeast Asia have been looking for a systematic way of dealing with an influx of asylum seekers. Many use Thailand as a transit country to Australia and even Canada, with most arriving from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

‘I think the Australian Malaysian likely agreement would provide some sort of certainty and also a model for others to study,’ he said. ‘I think the whole issue could be discussed further by all the other countries involved.’

Watching closely is Indonesia. Without Jakarta’s support, any attempt to find a regional solution to the people smuggling issue is doomed. The agreement with Malaysia is a crucial first step, re-opening the camp in PNG is strategically important and Thailand is an important follow-up.

Winning over Indonesia will be crucial, and would add some meaning to the Bali process that began almost a decade ago.