Malaysia solution puts politics before people

Bookmark and Share Governance & Service Provision | Ted Lapkin
The Drum 27th May, 2011

The United Nations can't seem to decide whether the Gillard Government's refugee swap arrangement with Malaysia is legitimate or illegitimate.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned that the deal might violate international law. But then the UN High Commission on Refugees thinks that any problems will be minor and easily resolved. Go figure.

Yet you can hardly blame the UN for its multiple policy personality disorder when Julia Gillard herself has been all over the map. Literally - from East Timor to Manus Island and now to Malaysia.

Julia Gillard first rode into public notice on the back of the refugee issue as the Labor opposition's immigration spokesperson from 2001 to 2003. She was savage in her criticism of the Coalition's border protection policy at the time, dismissing it as "punitive" and "cruel".

And when Kevin Rudd led federal Labor into power after the its election victory of 2007, his government was determined to set things right. On July 29, 2008, then-immigration minister Senator Chris Evans announced the Rudd government's "New Directions in Detention". Basking in the glow self-righteous purity, Evans  proclaimed a "more humane" policy that included the cancellation of Temporary Protection Visas and the abolition of the so-called ‘Pacific Solution'.

In other words, the Rudd government softened the Coalition's strong deterrent policies against illegal immigration. And as a result, there was an immediate and sustained surge in the number of unauthorised refugees arriving by sea.

The figures really speak for themselves. During the final year that the Howard government's policies were in place - 2007/08 - a total of 25 illegal immigrants came by sea in three boats.

But during 2008-09, the number of unauthorised arrivals climbed to 1,033 people in 23 boats. Over the 2009/10 year, it skyrocketed to 5,614 people in 117 boats. And so far this financial year - 2010/11 - we've seen 4,595 people show up in 82 boats.

The Rudd and Gillard governments initially tried to explain away this explosion in boat people numbers by attributing it to world events; those so-called ‘push factors'. Of course it has always beggared belief that this sharp upsurge in illegal arrivals by sea somehow miraculously coincided with Labor's change of border protection policy.

And now the Prime Minister has all but conceded the fact that her own Government's policies were enticing asylum seekers to cough up thousands of dollars for places on leaky boats. Earlier this month in Parliament, Julia Gillard promised that her new ‘Malaysian-solution' would send an unequivocal message to those seeking to try their luck:

"If you risk your life and spend your money on getting on a boat trying to come to Australia, you risk being taken to Malaysia and being put to the back of the queue."

Funny thing, that. Julia Gillard's partners in government, the Greens, have been denying all the while that there's even such a thing as a queue.

Then there's the issue of human rights in Malaysia, or rather the lack thereof. The NGO Amnesty International warns that Malaysis is the replete with:

"State-sanctioned vigilante groups whose job it is to round up foreigners and detain them, and where we know there are people dying in detention camps through diseases spread by rat urine."

Amnesty also reports that up to 6,000 refugees each year in Malaysia are subjected to the brutal corporal punishment of caning.

The US State Department 2010 report on human trafficking also noted that "refugees were particularly vulnerable to trafficking" in Malaysia. Corrupt local officials often forcibly confine trafficking victims within warehouses or brothels, coercing them into unpaid labour or prostitution.

This is the level to which Julia Gillard has sunk. This is where the Prime Minister's "more humane" refugee policies have brought us.

The Prime Minister herself admits that the Rudd/Gillard border protection reforms have lured people into risking their lives in cockleshell boats on the high seas. Untold numbers running into the hundreds, at least, have drowned.

And with her backbenchers telling her that the illegal immigration issue is undermining her already sagging political fortunes, Julia Gillard is desperate for a way out. If she has to sacrifice boat people to the none-too-tender mercies of Malaysia's refugee centres, so be it.

The Prime Minister's ruthless cynicism is made even worse by the fact that a far superior alternative exists. The 2010 US State Department Human Rights Report gives the Republic of Nauru a glowing stamp of approval. The Republic of Nauru gets high marks on those issues that really matter - freedom from arbitrary arrest, a fair and open judicial system and representative democracy.

Nauru might not be our idea of paradise. But it does provide a ready-made solution to Julia Gillard's self-inflicted refugee trials and asylum seeker tribulations. It will allow Australia to reinstitute a strong deterrent against illegal immigration boats, while simultaneously ensuring decent treatment for their passengers.

The only stigma attached to reopening Australian refugee processing centres on Nauru is political. They were first established by the Howard government and were harshly criticised at the time by our current Prime Minister.

But Julia Gillard needs to swallow her political pride, eat some crow, and put the best interests of refugees above her own political self-interest.

Back to sector