Australia and people smuggling in Southeast Asia: New security challenge facing an old security hurdle

Ben Moles

A year ago, I wrote and presented the paper that follows in Beijing- at a security dialogue addressing non-traditional security challenges. The recent and unfortunate loss of lives over the past week of people attempting to reach Australia by boats from Indonesia reminded me of the paper and highlights the great disconnect that remains between politically recognising a challenge and actually acting collectively to address it (evident both at the Australian state level and wider Southeast Asian regional level). Unfortunately I believe the position that I put forward a year ago still holds true and, sadly for that matter, will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. Australia remains but one piece in a far larger puzzle and if a consensus to cooperate for the ‘greater good’ cannot be achieved here, then what hope remains for a necessary regional consensus and furthermore, delivery of the action required to meet it. 

People smuggling, an issue-subset and consequence within irregular migration or irregular people movement, is an existing phenomenon emerging as a new security challenge affecting Southeast Asia and one which shall continue to be exacerbated as resolving the challenge to a manageable level rests in a need to problematically surmount an old security hurdle, the realist mistrust that exists between states.

People smuggling is a lucrative global criminal business enterprise generating US$10 billion annually stemming from the fact that each year some 900,000 people seek sanctuary in, relatively more, secure states. These irregular migrants leave source states for diverse reasons including the economic determinants of poverty often caused and aggravated by domestic conflict and regime incited ethnic and religious persecution. The facilitation of people smuggling demonstrates both a criminal and security challenge at both the individual state level and regional level as these transnational networks transcend state boundaries and undermine the regional states’ ability to secure both their own borders and citizenry.

Interpol acknowledges that for organised criminal networks “… smuggling humans across borders is a low-risk, high-profit business.” At the macro level, supply, of people wishing to be smuggled, and demand, for the services provided by people smugglers, will ensure that this challenge will not dissipate independent of it being addressed and measures implemented to combat and manage it, these include both the push factors of why people are leaving and pull factors that enable and incentivise it.

The often cited security challenges that people smuggling poses to states are multifarious and include at the state level: undermining border security, the sovereignty of the state and ability of the governing regime to uphold state sovereignty, and at the societal level those entering the state illegally are portrayed as presenting a challenge and threat economically and culturally to the extant society. A further challenge posed is from the ‘spill-over effect,’ people smuggling fuels and funds other criminal activities including: people trafficking, drug smuggling and small-arms proliferation which present other tangible threats to the regions states and societies.

Some security analysts like Alan Dupont recognise and espouse the need for a new paradigm to view these new transnational security challenges emerging in the Southeast Asia region beyond traditional realism. However, perhaps the greatest regional challenge exists in gaining a consensus and recognition to act, beyond purely rhetoric, to address new security challenges in a region where state to state interaction is characterised through the normative ‘ASEAN way’ of non-interference, where security is historically and traditionally viewed through a realist lens, and furthermore where gains are perceived inherently in realist zero-sum not absolute terms.

In large part, the problem rests in the fallacy of viewing and framing Southeast Asia as a homogenous whole. It is imperative to recognise that each state, where ultimate duty resides in preservation of state sovereignty and state survival, faces a plethora of security threats and challenges different to those states surrounding them. This stems from different historical legacies and differing levels of state capacity, where these threats are often competing for prioritisation, dependent on perceived level of threat to that individual state at one moment in time, and limited resources to address them.

Interestingly, within Australia the perception of threat stemming from irregular people movement does not rationally balance the actual threat posed to the state. Paradoxically, people smuggling is a high priority concern for Australia and Australians in general, where its actual impact is relatively low in comparison and contrastingly to regional states like Indonesia and Malaysia where its impact is high but priority to address it is relatively low. But why is this so?

The issue of people smuggling has been securitized in Australia and successive Australian Governments have dangerously staked their legitimacy in ‘stopping the boats,’ something which can only essentially be achieved through regional cooperation and within a binding institutional framework. In a recent Lowy institute poll controlling illegal immigration was considered a higher Government priority than improving relations with Australia’s neighbours and aiding countries in the region to reduce poverty (ironically a determinate cause of irregular migration). Australia is therefore, a vocal and vehement advocate for the need to address this new security challenge collaboratively. However, compacting the issue of people smuggling, as a problematic challenge from an Australian perspective, is the need to address people smuggling, perceived as a largely exogenous problem originating in Southeast Asian transit states and source states, within a regional context yet reconcile it within and against the back drop of ‘the ASEAN way’ of non-interference.

Rhetorically at least, Australia has been successful in lobbying Southeast Asian states to recognise people smuggling as a security challenge. ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan recently stated: “ASEAN certainly sees people-smuggling as an issue.” However, lacking enforcement mechanisms ASEAN remains impotent when it comes to ensuring compliance to initiating actual measures that meet and surpass the rhetoric. David Wright-Neville cynically, but accurately, surmises that beyond its “…ability to build a seemingly impenetrable network of minor officialdom and working groups, ASEAN’s main success has been in the area of self-promotion.”

Australia, alongside Indonesia in 2002, was instrumental in establishing the Bali-process. The Bali-process represents the regions foremost forum for specifically discussing people smuggling and transnational crime. Over 30 work-shops have been convened since its inauguration, represented by 43 participating states, where states discuss non-binding means of achieving its objectives that include: understanding and tackling the push factors that drive the problem of irregular migration, developing means for effective regional information and intelligence gathering, and improving cooperation between regional law enforcement agencies. The process is unique in that it is inclusive of source states, transit states and destination states. However, similarly to the inherent problem of ASEAN, the non-binding nature of the process has left some analysts such as John Nieuwenhysen questioning its utility, concluding that despite showing some early promise, the Bali-process hasn’t really achieved much at all.

Problematic for Australia is that there is a vast difference between recognising something as a challenge, as ASEAN and participants in the Bali-process have done, and actually collectively acting to resolve it. Mirroring uncertainty in a recent Lowy Institute debate between defendants of multilateralism and advocates of plurilateralism, Australia is hedging and balancing its need and desire to operate within a multilateral regional setting against the realisation that for effective action, due to institutional constraints, reluctance to break the norm of non-interference and continuing mistrust between regional states, Australia must pursue bilateral agreements, where trust between two parties is easier to forge and where action and results are easier to determine. New laws introduced recently in Indonesia and Malaysia specifically focussed on targeting the operational space of people smuggling networks have been welcomed by Canberra and demonstrate measures undertaken by regional states working bilaterally and unilaterally.

It is evident that regionally there is a recognised need for a solution that seeks management of the challenge, not mythical eradication of the problem, and that this needs to go beyond the existing pure rhetoric of advocating broad themes such as ‘Prevention, Protection and Prosecution.’ However, achieving this will be difficult within the current regional setting where statements outlining broad ideals sound impressive and are easy to garner a regional consensus on because the inherent cost involved in doing so, agreeing to non-binding agreements, is low. In reality such statements alone will achieve very little.

The challenge of managing people smuggling is likely to worsen before it gets better and without specifically addressing the push factors forcing irregular migration, focussing on ‘the end’ alone will remain futile. Recognising this, what is required is a re-evaluation of what is actually possible and the need to lower regional and lead state expectations and increase timeframes to meet this challenge, in order to mitigate the extant potential for goal failure. Furthermore, recently trialled ad hoc initiatives such as tightening refugee and immigration policies and increasing the barriers preventing entry to states like Australia, for domestic political reasons, is not the solution. This will only increase the burden on regional states like Malaysia and Indonesia, as legitimate routes of entry are closed forcing people to consider more nefarious means like people smuggling networks. This will elevate regional state-partner resent as they in-turn begin to question the cost of doing Australia’s work for them, further entrenching the problem.

In conclusion to this brief summary outlining the approach and new security challenge presented by people smuggling, at the macro-regional level: minus, the will and foresight of regional states to actually collectively recognise people smuggling as a security challenge and initiate actual collective action beyond pure rhetoric to address the challenge; developing confidence building measures necessary to reduce mistrust amongst states fostering a desire and will to cooperate and commence action for the collective good; and with the continuation of non-interference as an enduring salient feature of regional interaction, the prognosis prima facie for resolution of managing the new security challenge presented by people smuggling, and others for that matter, does not look good. Ultimately, overcoming the old security hurdle of mistrust between states will be paramount to addressing new security challenges in Southeast Asia.

Ben Moles completed his Masters in International Security Studies at the University of Sydney last year. The paper above was a draft version, the final copy was published as part of Griffith University’s Asia Institute Regional Outlook series and can be accessed here. ( Follow on Twitter @bwmoles


One thought on “Australia and people smuggling in Southeast Asia: New security challenge facing an old security hurdle

  1. Pingback: Australia in the Asian Century: Up, up and to where, or just mostly hot air? | International Security Discipulus

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