New and contradictory details of the Australia-Malaysia refugee exchange have been brought to light, as the federal Labor government grows closer to sealing the fate of up to 800 asylum seekers.
The Daily Telegraph said on June 9 that asylum seekers moved from Australia’s refugee system to Malaysia will be granted “immunity from harsh immigration laws” including human rights abuse and caning by issuing “special identity tags” to them. How effective this will be is far from clear.
The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) is again backing negotiations for the deal, in which Australia will send to Malaysia 800 refugees that arrived in Australia by boat and resettle 4000 refugees registered with the UN.
The UN refugee agency initially welcomed the announcement. Its regional representative Richard Towle said in May that the refugee swap could “make a significant practical contribution to what we're trying to achieve in the region” provided there were “core protection safeguards”.
But a June 2 report by ABC’s Lateline revealed Malaysian officials had removed the terms “human rights” from the draft introduction of the exchange agreement. It also showed internal emails from the UNHCR saying the deal “is not one we can endorse or be positively associated with”.
Immigration minister Chris Bowen told Lateline the government should be “[judged] on the result … of the final agreement and the implementation of the agreement”. He also said he would not exempt children from the deal.
The UN refugee agency then said on June 4 it would not support the deal, because the Australian government intended to send children to Malaysia. Malaysia is not a signatory to the refugee convention or the convention on torture and practises judicial caning of refugees.
But only a day later, the refugee agency retracted its criticism and said it remained “involved” and “continues to expect that appropriate refugee and human rights protection arrangements will be put in place for vulnerable groups”.
It said “negotiations … have progressed significantly” and it “welcomed” Bowen’s plan to assess lone children on a “case by case basis”.
But the government’s willingness to put children at risk and avoid talk of human rights has met with criticism from refugee supporters and the right-wing opposition.
A Courier Mail Galaxy poll found 66% of people opposed the deal with Malaysia and 42% strongly opposed it.
Federal opposition leader Tony Abbott has used reports of Malaysia’s human rights abuses to push his party’s plans to revive the “Pacific solution” (whereby refugees seeking asylum were imprisoned in the remote Pacific island nation of Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea), claiming it to be “less brutal” than Labor’s plans.
Abbott said the government was “stupid” and “bereft of political and moral compass”, the June 6 Australian said. He claimed the Malaysia swap was “more brutal than anything the Howard government even remotely contemplated”.
Two days later Abbott announced plans to toughen the Coalition’s anti-refugee policy even more. In a speech to the Lowy Institute, he said reopening the detention centre on Nauru and towing refugee boats back to Indonesia would deny “people smugglers a product to sell” and stop “further arrivals”.
The Coalition would weaken refugees’ right to appeal, give ASIO “as much time as it needed” for security checks, and bring in harsher mandatory sentencing for “people smugglers”.
The details of the planned Coalition policy are cruel and severe — a new Pacific solution that will be worse than under Howard. But Abbott said it was more humane than the Malaysia swap because there is “no possibility” that asylum seekers “sent to Nauru would ever be caned”.
Much of the mainstream media has toed the Coalition’s line — saying Australia should reject the Malaysia swap and instead reintroduce the Pacific Solution and detain refugees on Nauru.
In a twist for the refugee rights campaign that successfully beat back Howard’s barbaric policy, prominent refugee advocates have bought into the false debate.
Refugee lawyer Marion Le told the June 4 Australian she would “much rather see people taken to Nauru than … any of the other alternative places that Julia Gillard’s come up with”.
She said “reopening Nauru would be far better”.
It is true that the Malaysia swap is racist, barbaric and unnecessarily cruel to vulnerable people who have already been through hell. But a new “Pacific solution” is not the answer.
Human rights lawyer Julian Burnside said the “scandalous” Malaysia deal was “as bad as the Pacific Solution”. He told Green Left Weekly that “sending people to a place where we can be confident that their human rights will be violated is worse than sending them to a place which will do what Australia tells it.
“But both are unacceptable.”
Labor’s constant shift to the right on its refugee policy has allowed Abbott and the mainstream media to take up the “Pacific solution” again and ignore calls from refugee rights advocates to reject offshore detention policies all together.
Recently reformed refugee solidarity group ChilOut (Children Out of Detention) said on June 3 that the Australian government could not even protect refugees in domestic detention centres from harm. “There is absolutely no way it can ensure Malaysian authorities will adequately protect children,” it said.
“Neither will the opposition be able to do any better on Nauru. Conditions on Nauru were deplorable, with serious breaches of human rights.”
A June 6 statement signed by 17 refugee rights organisations, including the Refugee Council of Australia, Amnesty International, the Refugee and Immigration Legal Service and the Uniting Church Australia, slammed the “debate about asylum policy” in Australia, and said it “has now degenerated to the point where the central argument seems to be about which inhumane policy will cause the least suffering.
“Neither indefinite detention in the Pacific nor sending asylum seekers to uncertainty in Malaysia can be presented as a just or credible response to the needs of people seeking refugee protection in Australia …
“While Australian political leaders continue to ask ‘How do we stop the boats?’, the solutions put forward will almost inevitably result in highly vulnerable people being punished as an example to others.
“Each policy alternative will rightly be criticised for the devastating impacts on those being punished.”