The Australia-Malaysia refugee “swap” deal, signed in Kuala Lumpur on July 25, further persecutes people who have escaped conflict and terror and have an international right to seek asylum in Australia.
The Australian government said the plan was intended to attack the “people smugglers’ business model”. But, in reality, it is a high-priced human trafficking deal between two governments known for discriminating against refugees.
The refugee swap deal is part of the Australian government's ongoing attempt to criminalise and punish refugees who arrive in Australia by boat. However, it is not illegal to seek asylum, regardless of the means by which someone arrives.
The deal to deport 800 asylum seekers that arrive by boat to Malaysia supposedly hinged on “proper treatment” of the asylum seekers. But Malaysia does not legally recognise refugees. In fact, it has inhumanely tough anti-migrant laws that include arbitrary detention and judicial caning.
A protest by Malaysian NGOs and human rights groups outside the Mandarin Oriental Hotel where the deal was signed captured the hypocrisy of the Australian government, which ploughed ahead with the plan despite widespread criticism.
Dr Irene Fernandez from Tenaganita told the Malaysian Insider website at the protest: “The whole swap is a trade in human beings. Refugees are now becoming commodities that are to be traded for $300 million. This is totally unacceptable.”
Placards held by protesters from Malaysia’s Lawyers for Liberty, Amnesty International Malaysia and other human rights activists read: “Malaysia has not ratified the 1951 refugee convention” and “Refugees are not a political football — treat them with respect and dignity, don’t sacrifice their future for votes!”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration have said they would aid the plan.
But the agreement has only vague protection against arrest and persecution — including the issue of “special barcode” IDs — and nothing in the agreement is legally binding.
About 30,000 migrants and refugees, including asylum seekers headed to Australia, have been caned in Malaysia in the past five years.
Along with well-documented reports of refugees being beaten, this amounts to torture, and the Australian government cannot pretend to be unaware of this.
Australia is carrying out collective punishment against refugees who risk their lives and have little other choice when they board boats trying to get to a safe place.
The agreement gives no “preferential treatment” to refugees transferred by Australia to Malaysia. It says “they should receive no processing or resettlement advantage as a result of having undertaken irregular movement to Australia”.
Refugees are also expected to survive on “self-reliance” — they cannot legally work, seek education or health care. And, unless the IOM can provide accommodation, most refugees will end up in similar slum conditions to the many thousands of displaced people trying to survive in Malaysia.
Immigration minister Chris Bowen’s callous claim that the announcement of the plan “stopped the boats” does not acknowledge the consequences for people that will still be forced to flee conflict and poverty worldwide.
The rise of refugee arrivals in Australia is equivalent to the global rise in refugee numbers. For many reasons, more people are being forced to move across borders, often just to survive.
The only option for thousands of refugees shafted by Australia’s fortress mentality is to remain in a country of first asylum — where most refugees live permanently displaced without rights for an average of 20 years.
The alternative is to return to their country to face persecution, conflict and poverty.
Even Australia’s pledge to resettle 4000 refugees registered by the UNHCR is a calculated move to stem criticism.
Australia’s refugee intake is at a historic low. As part of the recent budget, the immigration department said: “Australia will expand its humanitarian program by 4000 places over the next four years — to 14,750 places annually.”
The 4000 “extra” places are for the Malaysia “swap” and bring the total number of refugee spots available in Australia to 7000. This is paltry considering the UN refugee agency says there are more than 90,000 refugees in Malaysia alone and about 16 million worldwide.
This plan will not stop people trying to seek asylum. Refugees will flee when they need to. It is inherently wrong to send asylum seekers to a third country until their “claim to asylum” is proven. It scapegoats the world’s most persecuted in the interest of political power between the two big parties.
As the richest country in the region, Australia must commit to its international obligation to accept and protect refugees. The “swap deal” must be repealed in full and Australia must commit to boosting its refugee intake, ending offshore processing and mandatory detention for good.