Nobody seems to be happy about the Gillard Government’s weekend announcement of a new asylum seeker policy to send refugees to Malaysia. Tony Abbott has called it a ‘lousy and hopeless deal’ for Australia. Amnesty International and refugee advocacy groups are horrified by the policy and shocked by the backflip that will see asylum seekers arriving by boat flown to a country with an appalling record for the treatment of refugees. A country that – like Nauru – is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention.
Here’s the long and the short of it, from ABC Online:
“Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced a deal with Malaysia to take 800 asylum seekers from Australia.
In exchange, she says Australia will accept 4,000 refugees from Malaysia.
Ms Gillard says from now on, asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat can be sent directly to Malaysia, where they will be at the back of the queue.”
So, now we’ve got what most are calling a ‘panicked’ response to dealing with asylum seekers in this country. A kind of Nauru mach two situation, except this time Australia will be taking refugees in return. As the Opposition noted in their disdain: ‘we didn’t take any refugees from Nauru. They didn’t have any. That was the point’.
Let’s get to the issues.
What’s so special about offshore processing?
The theory is simple: asylum seekers make their way to Australia because they want to settle here. It’s a ridiculously dangerous journey that has caused loss of life and injury. If the Government processes seekers offshore without guarantee of acceptance, then hopefully (so the theory goes) they won’t bother making the difficult journey in the first place. If there is a possibility that refugees might be sent to ‘the back of the queue’ in Malaysia once they get here, there’s a chance they might not come at all.
How is this similar to Nauru?
PM John Howard started his ‘Pacific Solution’ to asylum seekers when there was a spike in arrivals in 2001. His theory was the same as Gillard’s is today, that offshore processing will stem the tide of arrivals. Nauru, a Pacific Island nation, was one location where asylum seekers were sent to be processed. If they were accepted as genuine refugees – and the majority of them were – they would be allowed to settle in Australia. Gillard’s plan swaps Nauru for Malaysia and includes a policy of taking ‘genuine’ refugees from Malaysia in a policy costed at $292 million, but which the Opposition says could blow out to $800 million. The plan on Nauru essentially worked with then Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone announcing the last of the refugees held there would be moved onshore in 2005, but that it would reopen again if people smuggling resumed. While the numbers slowed, the plan was roundly criticised for human rights violations by the United Nations as some refugees spent more than 4 years waiting to be processed. The centres were then, as they are now, described as ‘mental health factories’.
So Gillard just copied the idea?
Essentially. And here’s the real backflip. During the election campaign it was continually put to the PM that she should simply adopt the Nauru proposal from the Opposition. Nauru, the nation told Australia, was ‘willing and able’ to take refugees again. But Ms Gillard said she simply would not send refugees to a country for processing if it had not signed the United Nations Refugee Convention. Fair enough, but guess what? Nor has Malaysia.