Julia Gillard’s announcement of the Malaysia Solution has horrified refugee supporters in Australia, and in Malaysia.
Under the deal 800 asylum seekers intercepted by Australia will be returned to Malaysia for processing, but would be “put at the back of the queue” in Malaysia and permanently denied resettlement in Australia.
In return Australian will accept 4000 UNHCR refugees from Malaysia over the next four years.
The deal has left 159 asylum seekers (as at May 30) including women and children, who arrived on three boats after the announcement, in limbo on Christmas Island pending deportation. They have been told they will not be processed in Australia but will be sent to a third (unspecified) country—either Malaysia or Manus Island, the Papua New Guinea detention centre used under Howard’s Pacific Solution.
Australian police are being specially trained for the brutal process of forced deportations to Malaysia.
Gillard and Bowen’s Malaysia Solution is worse than Howard’s Pacific Solution. In Malaysia, which has not signed the refugee convention, asylum seekers have no legal status—no right to work, no right to education.
Their illegal status explains why so many asylum seekers are brutally caned each year. Malaysia’s Home Secretary Hishammuddin Hussein admitted that 29,759 people had been caned between 2005 and 2010 for immigration offences.
Malaysian activist Eric Paulsen, from Malaysia’s Lawyers for Liberty, questioned the deal asking, “…will asylum seekers suddenly become immune to their day to day reality of arbitrary arrest, detention, harassment, extortion, jailing and whipping? We doubt that very much.”
Even the Malaysian Bar opposes the deal. Andrew Khoo, chair of its human rights committee, says that given Malaysia’s current laws, it is impossible to meet the deal’s requirement that “transferees will be treated with dignity and respect and in accordance with human rights standards”.
There may be other problems. Malaysia says it wants to vet those Australia sends them. It is likely that the highest number of asylum seekers sent from Australia will be from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. But there are no established Afghan, Iraqi or Iranian communities in Malaysia. They would be an obvious minority and potentially more vulnerable to harassment because of that.
In spite of the approval of the Canberra office of United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has condemned the Malaysia deal.
Bowen has suggested that refugee supporters should applaud the deal because Australia will resettle another 4000 UNHCR refugees. Of course Australia should take more UNHCR refugees—thousands more—but not at the cost of the rights of 800 people to whom Australia owes protection.
It is a shocking thing to see the Labor government so willing to directly violate the rights of 800 asylum seekers by trading them like cattle. Letting the government get away with abusing the rights of the 800 sent back to Malaysia will only make it easier for the Australian government to violate the rights of all asylum seekers.
Labor has stripped itself of any shred of credibility on refugees. Its hypocrisy—rejecting Nauru for not being a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees while embracing Malaysia—has given the whip hand to the Coalition and is allowing it to set the political agenda.
The Malaysia Solution is just the latest in the recent lurch to the right from Labor over refugees.
Racing to the right
In the aftermath of the fires in Villawood, seven asylum seekers remain in Silverwater jail, facing charges of affray and damaging Commonwealth property. The government is pushing ahead with legislation that will re-introduce a version of temporary protection visas for any refugee convicted of a criminal offence while in detention.
A recently released Villawood report by the Human Rights Commission has condemned mandatory detention and records the appalling toll of long-term detention on detainees’ mental health. Sixty per cent of those in Villawood at the time of the report had been detained for longer than six months, 45 per cent for more than a year.
Meanwhile the carnage continues inside the detention centres. In one week in May there were two attempted suicides at both Darwin and at Scherger in far north Queensland.
In February 2011, Chris Bowen re-iterated his promise of October 2010, that, “We’ll be meeting my commitment made in October that the majority of children will be out of detention by June.” As of May, the official statistics showed 787 children were still in detention. And the Minister now says that maybe half the children will be out of detention and the deadline has been shifted to the end of June.
By Ian Rintoul