Explaining Australian and Indonesian Cooperation on Asylum Policy

Australia wants to stop asylum seekers in Indonesia getting on boats. Historically stopping the boats has not been a priority for Indonesia. So how has Australia managed to secure Indonesia’s cooperation on this issue?

The last 12 months have been a little rocky for Australia and Indonesia’s relationship. The first upset was the ‘spying scandal’ followed by tension over the new Abbott Government’s policy to ‘tow-back’ the boats and, most recently, the revelation that the Australian navy breached Indonesia’s territorial waters during one of these tow-back operations. These recent moments of tension contrast with the character of the relationship between the two countries for the last decade, which can be characterised as constructive and cooperative.

One aspect of the relationship which has been developed is cooperation over asylum policy. For Australia the unauthorised arrival of asylum seekers by boat is a critical policy issue, in which ‘stopping the boats’ from Indonesia has become the only marker of policy success. For Indonesia, however, asylum seekers have not been a critical issue; numbers of asylum seekers in Indonesia are relatively small and the UNHCR operates from Jakarta to process and resettle people who apply for protection there.

Since the late 1990s there has been a significant shift in Indonesia’s approach to asylum policy on the part of Indonesia, a shift that can be attributed largely to Australia’s efforts. Australia has invested large amounts of political resources and money into Indonesia to develop cooperation on this issue. As a result Australia and Indonesia now cooperate on a broad range of asylum policies. Australia has facilitated, through funding and human resources, the development of Indonesia’s immigration detention regime, which now operates 13 detention centres across the archipelago. Australia contributes funding, training and intelligence to support Indonesia in anti-people smuggling operations. In regional forums Australia and Indonesia are diplomatic allies and together they co-chair the multilateral Regional Cooperation Framework, which was set up in 2011 to manage irregular people movement in South East Asia.

Inter-State Cooperation

States cooperate on asylum policy all the time; this is now one of the most dynamic and contentious areas of international diplomacy. This cooperation impacts bilateral relationships and on the ability of asylum seekers to achieve protection. So it is important that we understand how cooperation on asylum policy is achieved, its political implications and its significance for the people seeking asylum. Each case study is unique, as the historical relationship between states is crucial to how willing they are to agree to interfere with the otherwise free movement of people across state borders.

We use policy transfer theory to explain how Australia and Indonesian cooperation has been achieved, specifically the concept of ‘incentivised policy transfer’. Incentivised policy transfer refers to a process in which governments are encouraged to adopt policy change in order to secure financial assistance or investment. Yet rather than one state ‘compelling’ another, which indicates a level of resistance on the part of the host state, incentivised policy transfer describes a situation where the financial and diplomatic benefits of adopting the policy are presented in such a way that the host state can adopt the policy in its own national interest. Within this model, the host state maintains its integrity as a sovereign nation ‘free to make public policy decisions in its own interest, albeit within a framework that has been created by another state for its own benefit’.

Impact on Asylum Seekers

Australia and Indonesia’s cooperation has significant repercussions for the ability of asylum seekers to achieve effective protection in the Asia-Pacific region. According to the UNHCR the Asian region has the largest number of ‘persons of concern’ and the most protracted refugee situations. Yet it is also the region with the fewest signatories to the 1951 Convention Relating to Refugees and few Asian states have domestic policies or bilateral arrangements to address the issue. Australia is one of the few states in the region which has signed the Convention and has a resettlement program, despite the myriad strategies aimed at deterring the arrival of asylum seekers by boat. When Australia cooperates with its neighbours to make it difficult for asylum seekers to apply for asylum, it disrupts one of the few pathways in the region by which the most vulnerable people can gain a safe and durable future.


Amy Nethery is a lecturer in Politics and Policy Studies at Deakin University. She conducts research into asylum policy in Australia and Asia, and in particular the rise of immigration detention policy and its human impact. Carly Gordyn is a PhD scholar in International Relations at the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, ANU College of the Asia Pacific. Her doctoral thesis is exploring international regime complexity and Australia’s offshore detention policies.

This is an abbreviated version of an article “Australia-Indonesia cooperation on asylum-seekers: a case of ‘incentivised policy transfer’” published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs.