The Australian Asylum Controversy Extends to Indonesia

The on-going Australian asylum-seeking controversy has recently spread to the Indonesian island of Java. On August 20, the Jakarta Post announced the arrest of “28 illegal immigrants hiding in a forested coastal area of South Cianjur, West Java. The immigrants were part of a large group of asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran who were heading to Christmas Island.” The report went on to note that a total 61 asylum seekers have been detained, and that a number of others are still being sought. The Australian government had previously reached an agreement with Indonesia that would allow its navy to turn boats with asylum seekers back to Indonesian waters, but it has announced that it will not pursue that option.

Christmas Island is a small (135 km2; 52 sq mi) Australian territory located much closer to Java than to the Australian mainland.  Asylum seekers bound for Australia are held in detention centers on the island for processing. Because many detainees are eventually given visas and allowed into the country, boats carrying refugees often head for the island. Detainees on the island now number almost 1,700, as opposed to 1,400 permanent residents. Overcrowding is resulting in serious shortages of milk, fuel, and other goods on the island.

To cope with the record number of new arrivals, the Australian government has ordered the reopening of the detention centers on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea that had been employed by the previous, much more conservative, government. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard of the Labor Party is now taking a hard line herself, threatening “indefinite detention for boat arrivals”—a maneuver much opposed by the Green Party. According to a recent report, the Australian intelligence service has discovered that “people smugglers have been overheard telling clients that even if they are sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, they will eventually get to Australia if they are patient enough,” informing their customers that that “Nauru is ‘just another Christmas Island.’”

Australian law courts, meanwhile, are handling dozens of suits brought forth by former detainees on Nauru, many of who claim to have been suffered physical abuse along with “forced solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for as many as four weeks.” Over the past year, the government awarded former detainees with several million dollars in compensation funds.



Should Microstates Have Standing?

Even Europe’s larger microstates barely register on the map of the region, much less that of the world. In the basic political map of Europe posted above, Luxembourg and Malta are clearly visible, and even Andorra is fairly easily made out, but magnification is required to discern Lichtenstein and San Marino, while Monaco appears in name only. Increasingly, however, thematic maps are portraying these exiguous sovereign states as sizable circles, their regular geometric shapes indicating that they are not mapped to scale (as in the second map posted above). Although unspecified, the rationale seem to be that such entities deserve depiction on any state-based map, as they are indeed internationally recognized sovereign states. Leaving them off or mapping them (invisibly) to scale would unfairly deny them their rightful places within the so-called community of nations. In the standard model of geopolitics, all sovereign states are juridically equivalent individuals, and it would hardly be right to deny certain individuals recognition simply because they are smaller than others.

But recognizing microstates in such a manner entails severe geographical distortions. In the second map above, Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, Lichtenstein, Malta, and the Vatican City are vastly enlarged, appearing substantially larger than Luxembourg. All other countries in Europe are basically mapped to scale here, but the micro-countries are treated as deserving special notice. In a number of sources, microstates are literally mapped at vastly finer levels of resolution than others, merely by virtue of their anomalous sovereignty. In the maps used in the CIA World Factbook, one kilometer of Monaco is equal to roughly 1,400 miles of Russia.

In the standard world model, all sovereign states are portrayed as equivalent units, entities of the same scope and capacities that interact as fellow members in the “international community.” From data tables to encyclopedia and almanac entries, sovereign states tend to be depicted in the same manner, regardless of their area or population. The CIA World Factbook runs through the same information at the same level of detail for Monaco as it does for China. To be sure, the Factbook’s discussions are not exactly of equal length; 175 words are devoted to Monaco’s economy, whereas China gets 614. But China’s economy is a bit more than three and a half times the size of Monaco’s. Such portrayals are inherently misleading, outrageously minimizing large and populous countries while grotesquely maximizing small one. As a result, we lose sight of country size. When a country as large as Tunisia is routinely called “tiny,” how then are we to refer to Lichtenstein, a state one thousand times smaller? Super-teeny-tiny?

Treating microstates as equivalent to ordinary countries wastes effort and leads to misleading comparisons. Consider, for example, the Wikipedia table of average life expectancy across Europe, posted above. The numbers given seem to indicate that there is something quite special about Andorra, which posts longevity figures well beyond those of other states. In actuality, the average age of death in Andorra is much the same as it is in neighboring areas of northern Spain and Southern France, as Andorra is merely one of many similar regions in this vicinity, albeit one that happens to have sovereignty. By juxtaposing Andorra with France and Spain rather than with neighboring districts of the same scale in northern Spain and Southern France, a distorted picture results. And nothing is gained by including Monaco and the Vatican on the same list, with their “n/d [no data]” entries, other than the knowledge that the author is aware that these are internationally recognized sovereign states.

Ironically, in our drive to portray all countries in an egalitarian way, as if they were all individuals worthy of equal consideration, we end up depicting the world’s human individuals in a preposterously unequal manner. Consider the distortions that result when Nauru and India are regarded as equivalent units of the human community, worthy of the same level of attention when it comes to tabulating basic information about the world. The population of India (1.2 billion) is more than five orders of magnitude greater than that of Nauru (10 thousand), and its land area is larger still. By insisting on their equivalence, the standard world model seems to advance the claim that Nauru is 100,000 times more recognition-worthy than India, or perhaps even that each Nauruan counts as much as 100,000 Indians. Yet such an unhinged view of the world, one might argue, is essentially encoded in the very principles of the global political order. As represented in the United Nations General Assembly, each citizen of Nauru essentially has the voice of 100,000 citizens of India.

Even if we were to ignore micro-states,* the fallacy of states as equivalent units would persist. Even a country as vast as Belgium (compared to Lichtenstein or Monaco, that is) is dwarfed by China. But despite its many infelicities, the framework of sovereign states is indispensible for world mapping, as that is how most data are gathered and organized. And if microstates can be ignored most of the time without doing injustice to their inhabitants, they cannot be bypassed all of the time, as they are highly significant places in certain regards. Any serious consideration of global finance would have to consider Lichtenstein, just as one focused on gambling would have to count Monaco. And all of the microstates do indeed play their roles, if farcical at times, in the circuits of global diplomacy.

* I must admit that my own co-authored world geography textbooks include the microstates in their data tables; it is not easy to buck convention in such circumstances.

No Island No Claim: The Cases of Tuvalu and Nauru

In 2009, the Island of Bermeja, located in the Gulf of Mexico disappeared from site. Now, it will disappear on maps, as well.

Mexico was using Bermeja to leverage a claim on oil rights in the Gulf of Mexico, after all, their state maps showed the Island as an unquestionable part of their territory. The problem was, when a crew went out to examine the Bermeja, it could not be found.

Another crew was sent out to investigate the claim, alas, nothing to be found. The disbelief even led to conspiracy theories of the CIA destroying the island (see: Bikini Atoll). The United States gave a prompt and cutting response to Mexico, “No Island, No Claim,” the norm in international law.

This case was followed up in the last week by news that New Moore Island, or S. Talpatti, in the Bay of Bengal, a former maritime dispute point between India and Bangladesh, had ceased to be.

Many of the UN’s tiniest and lowest lying states, Tuvalu, Nauru, and Maldives, for example are in jeopardy of becoming submerged in the next decade, due to rising ocean levels.

The international community has been somewhat sympathetic to these soon to be submerged countries, with New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and even the United States offering financial aid. There are plans in the works for full scale evacuations of many Islands Oceania, should there be a catastrophic upsurge in sea levels in the form of a king tide.

It is likely that those in Tuvalu, Nauru, and some Parts of the Maldives and the Marshall Islands could soon become people without a state, only a few years after joining the UN.

Goodbye Nanumea Island (Part of Tuvalu). We hardly knew ye.

This issue is the focus of this week’s GeocurrentCast, illustrated in Google Earth. We’ll be taking a satellite look at the fate of the world’s tiniest and least elevated island states.

To download the presentation, first download Google Earth.

Next, download this file, and double click the video icon in Google Earth to start the guided, narrated tour.

You can pause or stop the tour at any time to investigate some of the islands in closer detail.

Happy flying. is now on twitter. Make us your source for history, geography, and cyber-cartography.

Taiwan and the Pacific: Contracting for Recognition

On March 15, 2010, a number of newspapers announced that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou would visit his country’s allies in the South Pacific: Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau, Tuvalu, and Solomon Islands. Such headlines were doubly wrong. The region specified is not exactly in the South Pacific, and the countries mentioned are not exactly allies of Taiwan.

To be sure, much of the territory of the six countries on Ma’s itinerary is in the South Pacific, but roughly 40 percent actually lies in the North Pacific (see map). This minor error is extremely common; Palau and the Marshall Island (along with the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, and the Northern Marianas) are almost always conceptualized as being in the South Pacific, despite the fact that they are entirely north of the Equator that divides the ocean into its northern and southern halves. This unmoored usage of the term “south” stems from a time when the entire Pacific was called the South Sea (or Mer du Sud; see map above), referencing the fact that mariners usually entered the ocean from the south, sailing around the tip of South America.

Additionally, regardless of where they are situated, it is not quite accurate to describe these countries as allies of Taiwan. An ally, according to the common definition, is a “state formally cooperating with another for military or other purposes.” It is difficult to imagine Nauru, a mined-out semi-wasteland of eight square miles and fourteen thousand people, coming to the aid of Taiwan for military or any other purposes. The relationship between these countries and Taiwan is actually one of clientage rather than alliance. In essence, Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Palau, and Solomon Islands sell their diplomatic recognition to Taiwan in exchange for aid. Taiwan thereby gains a small measure of international legitimacy, while these small Pacific countries gain much needed financial resources. A couple of them have switched their recognition between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China on several occasions, rewarding the more generous patron with their acknowledgement. Nor are they alone in the practice; Taiwan maintains the diplomatic recognition of 23 countries in total.

Nauru was once a rich little country with vast phosphate deposits. But the mines have been played out and the trust fund looted, putting Nauru in a desperate situation. Its only real resource now is diplomatic, based on its status as a recognized sovereign state. In 2009, it received $50 million from Russia in exchange for recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Such recognition may seem to mean little in practice, but it evidently has value.

South Ossetia Gains Recognition

Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia

South Ossetia is a self-declared independent country located in what the United States and most of the international community regards as Georgian territory. It has functioned as an autonomous client state of Russia ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. When Georgia made moves to reclaim South Ossetia in the summer of 2008, Russia invaded and defeated Georgia, and then officially recognized South Ossetia as an independent state. Russia’s diplomatic recognition of the breakaway region was in part done in protest against the recognition of the independence of Kosovo (formerly part of Serbia) by the United States and most European countries.

Russia is now attempting to bolster its diplomatic position by encouraging other countries to recognize South Ossetia. Nicaragua was the first to sign on, followed by Venezuela. In mid-December, 2009, South Ossetia gained another political partner: the tiny Pacific country of Nauru. Informed sources claim that Russia essentially purchased such recognition with a $50 million economic aid package. Nauru, once one of the world’s richest counties on a per capita basis, certainly needs the money, as it has exhausted the phosphate deposits that once gave it wealth, generating an environmental disaster in the process.

North Ossetia and South Ossetia

Such diplomatic maneuverings are not unique to South Ossetia and Kosovo. Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, for example, have long dangled out aid packages in exchange for recognition, a game that Beijing is slowly winning. Thus far, Russia has fared poorly in its quest for international support for its client state. While only four internationally legitimate countries recognize South Ossetia, sixty-four currently recognize Kosovo. (South Ossetia is, however, recognized by several other generally unrecognized countries, such as Abkhazia).

How many countries are there in the world today? As the South Ossetia example shows, no precise answer can be given, as it all depends on what one counts as a country.

South Ossetia is plenty interesting in its own right, regardless of such diplomatic games. The Ossetians are the descendents of the ancient Alans, who were themselves an offshoot of the ancient Scythians. According to C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor’s fascinating book From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail, most of the Arthurian legends stem directly from the folklore of the Alans, many of whom were among the invaders of the dying Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. For a film interpretation of the Littleton and Malcor thesis, see Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur.

Also to note is the fact that South Ossetia is a small part of the larger Ossetian “nation.” Only some 70,000 people reside in South Ossetia, while over 700,000 live in neighboring North Ossetia-Alania, which is an internal republic of the Russian Federation (it is part of Russia, in other words). Roughly two thirds of the people of both North and South Ossetia are ethnically Ossetian.