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Issue #1501      18 May 2011

Asylum seeker struggle takes a bitter turn

In the wake of the widespread protest riots of long-detained asylum seekers who arrived by boat, the Gillard government has failed to take the courageous and principled stance of abandoning off-shore processing and mandatory detention. Instead, it has made the bizarre and terrible decision to pursue an overall policy that mimics and in some ways is even worse than the Howard government’s infamous “Pacific solution”.

Lenggeng detention center, south of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Under the off-shore processing regime established by Howard, detainees were held in camps on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and on Nauru (hence the “Pacific Solution”) while their visa applications were processed. This practice was severely criticised by the UN and human rights groups. Detainees were effectively dumped in these camps, in many cases for more than a year, while their applications for visas as refugees were assessed.

One applicant was detained on Nauru for five years and in one case a stateless man was detained there effectively for life because no country could be formally identified as his place of origin.

The ALP government is keen to appear more humane than its predecessor, by rejecting the “Pacific Solution”, particularly the re-use of the Nauru facilities. However, it still favours off-shore processing because it prefers to chase the votes of those who see the arrival of asylum seekers in boats as an invasion (a perception fostered by the former Howard regime), rather than dumping the off-shore policy altogether.

This political opportunism resulted in the government seeking the cooperation of other regional nations, particularly East Timor, for the establishment of new detention and processing centres. However, this move was rejected by all the nations at the recent Bali conference of regional foreign ministers.

Not willing to be thwarted from off-shore processing, and unwilling to accept the ignominy of seeking to reopen the Nauru facilities, the government decided to offer regional governments some irresistible diplomatic sweeteners. As a result it now seems likely that agreements will be reached with the governments of Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.

The Malaysian malaise

This approach has resulted in some bizarre twists in the government’s immigration policies. For a start the government wants to reopen the Manus Island centre, and has extended a very welcome offer of aid to the Papua-New Guinea government as an enticement. That’s only a step away from reinstating the full “Pacific Solution”. The Gillard government denies this, making the irrelevant point that the new agreements would only involve our immediate neighbours.

But the worst aspect of the new policy initiatives involves the pending new agreement with the Malaysian government. Under the new agreement, Australia would accept 1,000 asylum seekers with confirmed refugee status per year for four years. That is a very good move, but in exchange, we would ship the next 800 new asylum seekers that arrive in Australian waters to Malaysia for detention.

Julia Gillard has made it clear that this new approach is a deliberate punishment for those who dare to arrive by boat without asking our permission first. Announcing the details of the new deal with Malaysia she declared: “I do want to indicate that we are going to take a very tough and rigorous approach. Anybody that pays a people smuggler and risks their life on a boat is running the risk they end up in Malaysia, where there are many refugees already processed who have been there for a longer period of time.”

No exceptions would be made for women, children or the infirm. Ms Gillard added: “If you get on a boat, then the risk you run is that you end up in Malaysia, and I’m not going to put any caveats on that.”

Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, and is a human rights pariah. The thousands of asylum seekers who live there do not receive benefits from the government. They are allowed to live in the community, but have to live in grossly overcrowded accommodation.

If they break the law or just offend the government they may be whipped with canes and/or interned in detention centres, where the accent is on punishment and which are jails in all but name.

Asylum seekers in Malaysia are denied the right to employment but must seek work illegally in order to survive. They work in the most degrading and laborious jobs, in constant fear of arrest. The children of asylum seekers are denied the right to an education.

There have been numerous accounts of women asylum seekers being forced into prostitution in Malaysia. Malaysia also has no scruples about forcibly deporting rejected asylum seekers back to their countries of origin, even where this would certainly involve imprisonment, torture and/or death.

Malaysia has about 73,000 people awaiting acceptance for resettlement, so the new arrivals would face years of delay before a decision was made on their applications for refugee status, let alone acceptance from Australia. Moreover, Julia Gillard has also indicated that the government would not necessarily accept these people, even if they are found to be genuine refugees.

Malaysia has promised the Gillard government that these asylum seekers would be treated well, but that is a very hollow assurance, because the Malaysian government claims that it already treats asylum seekers with dignity and respect.

A mixed response

Because the deal with Malaysia involves increasing our intake of asylum seekers from there, many on the left, including left-wing ALP parliamentarians and members of the Greens, have accepted the proposed arrangement.

This does not include Greens leader Bob Brown, who described the new policy as “a dog’s breakfast”, and added: “Why couldn’t the government offer PNG aid in the first place, rather than as a bribe?

If the government is willing to accept 4,000 refugees from Malaysia over four years, as well as (eventually) the next-to-arrive 800 asylum seekers, why not just accept them all for processing on the mainland, without subjecting the 800 asylum seekers to the totally unjustified sentence of spending perhaps 20 years in squalor and misery in Malaysia?”  

Next article – Celebrations of the 1500th Guardian in SA

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