Sending asylum seekers to Malaysia: 2 Min Cheat Sheet

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’.

Will it ‘stop the boats

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.

If the policy ‘stops the boats’ and we’re still taking genuine refugees, what’s to complain about?

Malaysia has a terrible record for human rights violations, especially when it comes to the treatment of refugees. As noted above, it has not ratified the UN refugee convention. According to Amnesty International, which conducted a detailed audit of the treatment of refugees in Malaysia last year, detainees are subjected to ‘detention in appalling conditions, caning, extortion, human trafficking and deportation back to the persecution that they fled’.


Is that it?

Ms Gillard says she hopes this is step one in developing a ‘regional processing solution’ and is in talks with Papua New Guinea to set up an assessment centre there. The Government also says it may re-open the facility on Manus Island, which John Howard’s Government operated. This is all very similar to Howard’s Pacific Solution in design but the Opposition is still not happy because the Government is still taking those 4000 refugees from Malaysia.

Remember when the Opposition blamed the Christmas Island tragedy on the Gillard Government’s policies, because they hadn’t ‘stopped the boats’? At the time Mr Abbott said a return to the Howard Government’s policies was the only way to combat people smuggling. Gillard’s team rejected this assertion outright.

Now, it would appear, there’s only a very slim difference between the two camps.

Let’s see if, and how, the rhetoric changes.

Fast Facts

As at 15 April 2011, there were 6872 people in immigration detention, including 5047 in immigration detention on the mainland and 1825 in immigration detention on Christmas Island.

59 of these have had a protection visa refused.

221 of these arrived in Australia lawfully, but overstayed their Visa and were taken into detention.

6216 were undergoing a Refugee Status Assessment.

The majority have been in detention for less than one year.


What do you think about this new policy?