Julia Gillard’s asylum seeker swap with Malaysia is facing mounting opposition. Both houses of parliament have condemned it, a High Court challenge is underway, and dissent has emerged within the ALP. Most significantly, protests marking World Refugee Day across the country in June were the largest since the Howard years.

Many people who hoped that Labor would break with the Liberals’ racist policies are fed up. The refugee movement is again a force to be reckoned with.

Gillard does not need parliament’s approval for the deal, so the parliamentary motions condemning it have only moral effect. But it’s highly significant that 14 WA state Labor MPs, and federal MPs Melissa Parkes from Fremantle and Victoria’s Anna Burke, have spoken out.

Gillard's Malaysia solution has triggered the biggest refugee rights demonstrations since the Howard yearsAt the WA Labor conference, it was only pressure from party heavyweights (including Gillard herself) which prevented a motion against the deal being put. At the NSW Labor conference on July 9-10 Labor for Refugees will be out in force.

The Labor Left faction has belatedly announced it would not support the deal unless it gains UNHCR endorsement.

As Solidarity went to press the deal had still not been finalised, almost two months after the government announced it on May 7.

The number of boat arrivals since the announcement had climbed to 340 by the end of June—almost half the figure that Australia wants to send back. Among them are families who have fled the repressive regime of Syria’s President Assad, whose butchery Western countries have condemned.
Gillard’s claim that her Malaysia deal can “break the people smugglers’ business model” by “stopping the boats” already looks hollow.

As long as asylum seekers face persecution in their home countries, and conditions in places like Malaysia remain unliveable, they will continue to come here—and they should be welcomed.

Gillard has tried to give her Malaysia solution a humanitarian gloss by portraying it as a “regional agreement”, like the Fraser government’s response to the arrival of Vietnamese asylum boats in the 1970s. But on the ABC’s AM program, even Fraser dismissed such comparisons:

“The whole idea of swapping asylum seekers including children in this way, as if they were commodities, is odious. It is trading in people and bares no relationship whatsoever to the cooperation that was achieved during the exodus from Indo-China.”

Chris Bowen’s attempt to sell the deal by pointing to the 4000 extra UNHCR recognised refugees the government will accept over four years has fallen flat. Refugee advocates have called for a much larger intake from Malaysia and Indonesia for years—but there is no reason this has to be tied to denying the rights of 800 people.

No protections in Malaysia
Opinion polls consistently show that over 70 per cent of Australians oppose the plan. This will rise after SBS’s brilliant Go Back to Where You Came From broadcast images of refugees’ living and working conditions in Malaysia into the lounge rooms of over half a million Australians.

In Malaysia, human rights and refugee support groups are campaigning vigorously against the deal. Lawyers for Liberty director Renuka Balasubramaniam, who spoke at Sydney’s World Refugee Day protest told Solidarity, “There is no way that the Malaysian government can live up to any guarantees it gives to Australia. There are no protections for refugees. There is no right to work. There is no medical care, no insurance or social security”.

Many Malaysian activists, not least opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, have themselves experienced detention at the hand of the Malaysian state. As they have put it, “If the government can’t guarantee the safety of opposition MPs, what chance do refugees have?”

Much now rests on whether local UNHCR officials in Australia and Malaysia will endorse the deal and grant it some ill-deserved legitimacy (despite condemnation from UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay and the deep reservations of the UNHCR’s head office in Geneva).

Many refugee supporters are stunned that the UNHCR would consider this. But they are forced to take responsibility for supporting refugees in places like Malaysia and find them resettlement places in third countries. Their lack of funding and difficulty getting Western governments to accept refugees produces pragmatism at the offer of Australian government money and more resettlement places.

Hundreds of emails have been sent by refugee supporters urging the Geneva-based head of the UNHCR’s Antonio Guterres to reject Australia’s deal. But the real challenge is to build the refugee movement and force Gillard to back down from her anti-refugee policies.

By Mark Goudkamp

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