A Fair Future Returned
a vision of the days after the poisoned party-political asylum seeker war
The bright aluminium wall cladding makes you squint in the tropical midday sun. Offset by white concrete piers and framed with azure-blue recessed borders, the panels divide the wall of the three-storey building into horizontal and vertical sections. At a safe distance, the intense arterial traffic races along the Jalan Tol Dalam Kota Jakarta, the Ring Road weaving its meandering course beyond the generous lawn frontage of the building. Family clusters sit on the grass while groups of young men energetically gesticulate in an emotional debate. A clump of little kids run around chasing each other, calling out, inventing plays that match their energy.
This shimmering of light and reflections is Jakarta’s new UN Commission for Refugees building. It generously replaces the small Kedutaan Besar United Nations that for too long tried to hide its presence on the 14th floor of a quiet side street building in the Jalan Jaksa quarter of Jakarta Pusat. The two embracing sky-blue olive branches on the neon-lit rotating UNHCR logo above the awning covering the main entrance unmistakably mark the building’s intent. The Australian Immigration Department sign sits comfortably besides the Imigrasi Republik Indonesia logo and the sign of Jabatan Imigresen Malaysia, Malaysia’s Immigration Department.
More logos fill out a display board outside the entrance: there’s QANTAS, Garuda Indonesia and MAS, Malaysia’s Airline System, but there’s also IOM, the International Organisation for Migration, AusAID, the Australian Government’s Foreign Aid office, there is Amnesty International and there’s even an Oxfam logo. It looks like the regional office of NGO Heaven, but more importantly, this is the go-to venue for Asia’s huddled masses.
Beyond the building’s entrance, the ground floor looks like a Centrelink office. There are at least twenty counters placed around five nationality and language areas. Soft Gamelan music plays through the speakers, interrupted only when a name or number is called out in Bahasa or in any one of several languages depending on the person or family’s nationality. Forgotten are the nearly two-year waiting periods in the old Jalan Jaksa building just to obtain asylum seeker registration. This first stage of UNHCR’s refugee assessment process is now completed on the day that you first visit the new Ring Road building. The other waiting times are also forgotten: it no longer takes two or more years from your registration confirmation to get listed for an assessment interview in one of the rooms on the second floor. There is still a waiting time, but it’s a matter of weeks or a month or two – most certainly not years.
The boats to Australia are not forgotten, but only when someone remembers family or friends who set off to Darwin or Christmas Island and never made it and were never heard from again. At other times someone recalls the cruel torture of waiting for two, three, four or five years for UNHCR to complete its refugee assessment – only to then be told that ‘Australia does not resettle anyone from Indonesia’. In those horrid times of the past, these were the sole circumstances that led people to contract the shadowy agents for passage on a boat to Christmas Island.
Not everybody ends up in Australia; neither does everyone want to go to Australia. Some become residents and citizens in Indonesia. Others move to Malaysia. Fully negotiated Refugee Resettlement Agreements are in place, and are continuously negotiated, with several countries in the region and also elsewhere across the globe. As long as resettlement includes full Citizenship rights, access to Health, Employment, Housing and Education (the famous Che-he agreements), resettlement negotiations can take place. A number of retired diplomats, including from Australia, work closely with UNHCR, IOM and representatives of several countries to move things along – from the third floor of the building.
The impact of this initiative on Australia’s national budget is astounding, but not in terms of direct expenditure on Jakarta’s Asylum Processing Centre. The ever-spiralling costs of the politically loaded “border protection” activities since the days of the Howard government have all but vanished. Finally the Australian Navy can be what it was intended for – to be Australia’s Defence Force. The staggering cost of “mandatory immigration detention” has also gone. The 25 detention centres around Australia no longer exist; apart from some facilities to accommodate a few illicit immigrants and a handful of visa-overstayers, there is no need for their existence.
In the normal course of events, establishment of the Jakarta Processing Centre would never have been on the agenda. In Australian politics it would not even had the chance of being touted as a possibility. Ever since asylum seekers started running from the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, arriving in Indonesia since 1998, the Howard government bluntly refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of their presence, their coming to Australia or their need to find a new home. Subsequent Labor governments unquestionably continued Howard and Ruddock’s shut-the-door and don’t mention them policy. Even though it stared everyone who was prepared to look more closely in the face, any mention of assisting asylum seekers in Indonesia before they embarked on boats seemed frozen in permafrost - an icy statue of the Elephant in the Room in the Australian Parliament and in national discourse. However, the normal course of events came to a screeching halt soon after Zedekiah Brown had made his decision.
Slowly, and precisely three kilometres under the speed limit, the slightly rusted Landcruiser carried Immigration Minister Zedekiah Brown down the slopes of the high mountain ranges of the Victorian Alps towards the town and his electorate office. Zed Brown’s driving style, like his performance as a Minister, was impeccable, decisive, calm, and conscious. He had a long record of Parliamentary performance that was above reproach, and he was respected by all. So too, the trip to his office on this Saturday afternoon was impeccably timed so he would arrive just after dark. He used the four-wheel drive he rarely took on long trips from the farm. As he drove into town he used the quiet streets and headed for the underground Cinema car park, a block away from the office. Before he locked the car, he took his briefcase, donned his brown rabbit Akubra, turned the collar of his winter coat up around his neck and put on his newly purchased pair of dark-rimmed glasses. Leaving through the side door of the car park he used the back lane and arrived in his office without being seen by anyone.
Fifteen minutes later the courier’s motorbike arrived. At the front door, Zed handed him the three identical Normal Priority satchels and signed the courier’s clip board. Parcel one for the Fairfax network, another one for News Corp and the third one for the ABC. Quietly he remained standing behind the closed door until the sound of the 450cc Honda died into the distance. Then he closes the curtains, dims the lights, takes a teaspoon from the drawer and fills the two crystal tumblers from the carton of orange juice in the small kitchen fridge. He carefully places them on the side table under the reading light. Pensively, he enters the three, then the ten numbers into the telephone to redirect all calls to the Parliamentary office. Then he slowly lowers into the leather arm chair next to the coffee table.
Zed Brown slowly slides the handwritten note across the table so it is in front of him. “Dear Minister,” the note says, “I now know that you just want to forget about me and let me rot on the Manus island. I have now joined with the twenty others. We will no longer be alive when you will read my note.” A small photograph of the eleven-year old girl is attached to the note with a paperclip. Her fine yet sharply defined facial features contrast against the headscarf that covers her hair. The features betray a highly conscious young woman of great beauty. Zed knows she’s just a few days younger than his own daughter. The short letter signs off with “Thank you for reading my letters. Aaminah.”
In the kitchen Zed had made sure to thoroughly rinse the small Nembutal bottle after adding its contents to the orange juice in the tumblers. He had soaked it in warm water until the label had come off, before separately depositing the finely shredded and mashed-up label and the bottle in the two outside rubbish bins. As he quietly slips away, a tear slowly moves down along one side of his nose.
His Normal Priority parcel classification ensured that it would take almost 24 hours before the news would start to break. The ABC sits on the story for the entire Sunday, trying to confirm, check and recheck the voracity and source of the explosive contents of the Immigration Minister’s parcel, while the satchel lays unattended at the News Corp news office for most of the Sunday. It is not until just before the Monday morning dawn that the story really starts to break, with the Fairfax papers publishing almost all of the material under the frontpage headline “Immigration Minister Missing”. By 6.10am ABCNews24 and ABC1 drops all programming and switches to live coverage. The cops are about to force the door of Zed Brown’s office and discover him, but they successfully keep all reporters firmly out of sight: in agreement with the Office of PM & Cabinet any press commentary is embargoed until the PM is briefed. This ensures that the explosive contents of the parcels remain the central theme. It is around 10am, at about the same time that a Fairfax Radio presenter compares the Minister’s actions to those of a suicide bomber, that all hell breaks loose on radio talkback and television.