The Australian government has received heavy criticism in recent weeks for its inhumane treatment of refugees, in particular its “swap” deal with Malaysia and its mandatory detention policy.
Federal Greens MP Adam Bandt and independent MP Andrew Wilkie moved a parliamentary motion on May 30 condemning the plan to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia.
A few days earlier, UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay denounced the Malaysia deal and called Australia’s policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers “a practice that can, and has, led to suicides”.
During a visit to Australia on May 25 she said: “Thousands of men, women and, most disturbingly of all, children, have been held in Australian detention centres for prolonged periods, even though they have committed no crime.
“When detention is mandatory and does not take into account individual circumstances, it can be considered arbitrary and therefore in breach of international law.”
She also said the “Malaysia solution” did not comply with Australia’s international obligation, because it could not ensure “no real risk of breach of the principles of the 1951 refugee convention and the convention against torture, which Australia has ratified and Malaysia has not”.
Even the right-wing Murdoch media have covered the atrocious conditions in Malaysian detention centres and the horrific practice of judicial caning.
A June 2 Daily Telegraph article asked: “How will [immigration minister Chris Bowen] protect [asylum seekers] from caning once they have left Australia? Why would Malaysia rattan-wielders care what Chris Bowen says, anyway?”
The “rattan” cane is used as a punishment in Malaysia for up to 60 offences, including theft and assault. Malaysia changed its migration law in 2002 to allow use of the cane on “illegal” refugees and migrants.
The effects of caning are horrific, physically and mentally. The rattan rips away skin and flesh, turns the fatty tissue underneath into pulp, and scars muscle fibre.
In a December report on “torture by judicial caning”, Amnesty International said Malaysian authorities carry out about 10,000 canings a year. It said “34,923 foreigners were caned between 2002 … and 2008”.
Amnesty and other human rights organisations have highlighted the fact that Australia is punishing people arriving by boat for short-term political gain.
In a May 26 letter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Human Rights Watch slammed the exchange with Malaysia because it lacked any guarantee asylum seekers would not be subject to human rights abuses.
It said the government was trying to “subvert the principles underlying refugee resettlement by transforming resettlement from a tool of international protection into a mechanism of migration-control …
“The agreement with Malaysia … goes after the easy target — asylum seekers arriving on boats — by trading 800 of them for 4,000 refugees, and thus subjecting them, in all likelihood, to years of misery, given Malaysia's poor reception conditions for asylum seekers.”
Under the Gillard government’s plan, every refugee that arrives by boat will be sent to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or Malaysia.
The more than 150 refugees that have arrived since Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the plan on May 7 will be subject to the swap. They are being held on Christmas Island “pending removal to another country”.
Among them are 17 children, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said, including teenage women with no parents.
The 800 refugees deported to Malaysia won’t receive preferential treatment over the 90,000 others already there. Once “recognised” as refugees, they will have no guarantee of resettlement in Australia, even if immediate family members are already living here.
Those not sent to Malaysia will be sent to a camp on Manus Island that Labor closed in 2007 and has left derelict since. Bowen said no time limit would be set on how long refugees may be held on Manus Island.
Opposition immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison joined right-wing voices condemning the Malaysia deal, instead arguing for a return to the reviled “Pacific solution”.
Morrison tried to appear compassionate over his criticisms of the Malaysia deal, but ended up comparing asylum seekers to cattle going to slaughter. He said he was “equally shocked” by the treatment of cattle in an Indonesian abattoir and the conditions in Malaysia’s immigration camps.
The government has not been honest about Malaysia’s human rights record. Torture, abuse and extortion are real possibilities for asylum seekers and Australia cannot provide protection once they are there.
But it is wrong to frame the Pacific solution or a different “offshore” scheme as a lesser evil. Any form of offshore processing or detention denies Australia’s responsibility to people who have suffered immense hardship.
The Coalition can try to condemn the Labor government for abandoning refugees to Third World countries, but its position is hardly better. It would still send refugees to remote Pacific islands with little oversight, squalid conditions and no limit on how long people can be locked up.
It’s vital to reject the big parties’ plans for asylum seekers, smash the myths and lies peddled around them and fight for a refugee policy that is humane and just.