News & Current Affairs
13 April 2014
One rule for our navy, another for Indonesian fishermen
Indonesian fishermen unload various catch of fish in Aceh
Indonesian fishermen who inadvertently breach Australian waters suffer punitive circumstances, but Australian warships receive differential treatment
Last year, during a visit to Kupang, in West Timor, I met a fisherman with a 12 year old daughter and a seven year old son. His two boats were burned by the Australian government as they were said at the time to have breached Australian waters. He was unsuccessfully trying to gain work as crew on another boat. His children no longer attended school, as the family simply could not afford it. His daughter, once the top of her class, struggled to teach herself and her younger brother at home.
The treatment inflicted on this Indonesian family highlights the hypocrisy currently on display by the Australian navy, which was recently made evident by the Senate inquiry report into breaches of Indonesian waters in the Timor Sea. It appears that there's one rule for our navy, and quite another for impoverished fishermen.
In February, the defence and customs review reported on the six recent incursions undertaken by the Australian navy in Indonesian waters, asserting that "on each occasion the incursion was inadvertent, each arose from incorrect calculation of the boundaries of Indonesian waters rather than as a deliberate action or navigational error." Four of these incursions were committed by the Royal Australian navy, and two by Customs and Border Protection. The joint review found that a lack of training in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) may have contributed to the breaches.
While the navy's actions received no punishment, this strongly contrasts with the Australian government's aggressive crackdown on the boats of our Indonesian neighbours and its ongoing effects on their families, who suffer punitive circumstances.
Of course, few Indonesian fishermen receive training on the UNCLOS, with many not being able to attend schooling past a primary school level. Yet since 1988, an unknown number of boats who venture near or into the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone have been apprehended and burned. Fishermen are thrown into immigration detention, sometimes suffering lengthy delays until trial, where they are then represented by Legal Aid against the Commonwealth Department of Public Prosecutions, or released without charge.
After legal proceedings, even when the fishermen were found to be innocent under Australian law, fishermen have said that people are sometimes deported back to Denpasar in Bali, where they are left to scrounge their way back to their home villages, sometimes more than 1,000 kilometres away on far flung islands.
Boats are occasionally owned outright, but more often are subject to loans, or are the direct asset of another person in the village. The boats' destruction becomes an economic millstone hung about individuals' necks; a debt that they cannot repay.
Others have paid the ultimate price. In 2003, 21 year old fisherman Mansur LaIbu died in detention, onboard his own boat strung up to wharves in Darwin harbour. He had been held without trial for one month. Two years later, 37 year old Mohammed Heri suffered a similar fate.
Until 2005, detained fishermen were treated by the Australian government as being too primitive to require detention on land, with access to bathrooms, steady ground, shelter and away from lingering tropical mosquitoes. Instead, politicians commented that they would "be more comfortable" on board their boats.
While one skipper sat in Australian detention, unscrupulous Indonesian debt collectors visited and burned his home, seriously injuring his wife and infant child. That fisherman was sent home on "compassionate" grounds without charge. We can only imagine the repercussions and personal hardship that flow from the detention of hardworking fishermen in Australia, while their families struggle in ever-present poverty without their breadwinners.
In 2008, a man from West Timor was acquitted of all unlawful fishing charges by the high court of Australia as his boat had been apprehended outside the Australian Fishing Zone. The decision came after almost two years of imprisonment. In his absence, his family would have struggled to make ends meet in one of the poorest provinces in Indonesia. In the same year as his acquittal, 1,217 fishermen were apprehended and detained.
One of these fishermen, Sahring from West Timor, had his boat burned by the Australian navy in 2008, albeit in Indonesian waters. In March 2014, a landmark case handed down by the federal court of Australia in Darwin acknowledged that he was entitled to $44,000 in compensation.
It must be asked: how many of the other 1,216 fishermen also had their property destroyed in their own waters?
Since 2005, approximately 5,394 fishermen have been apprehended by Australian officials on the ocean, and hundreds of boats destroyed. Such antiquated policy in the treatment of our neighbours stands in disproportionate contrast to the "unintended" incursions of naval ships, armed to the teeth with every piece of radar and satellite equipment under the sun, who have suffered no cost or damage as a result of their action.
Ironically, these naval boats have also often destroyed the very fishing boats that have inadvertently crossed into Australian waters. Warships suffer no penalty and the boats supporting thousands of families living in poverty become ash on the water. Imagine the outrage in Australia if Indonesian warships were to apprehend Australian boats, even with a legal basis.
We should all be concerned, as if Australian officials are not aware of their basic obligations under international law, what stops them from being cowboys on the sea?