Whose appalling idea was it to send kids to Malaysia?

Lenggeng detention center, south of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

“Just to clarify – we’ve suspended some live meat exports to Indonesia but we’re still happy to export unaccompanied children to Malaysia?”

I read that remark on Twitter by Channel 7 journalist Edwina Bartholomew and I re-tweeted it, with a strong conviction that children must never be the pawns in Australia’s attempts to manage asylum seeker arrivals.

During this week over 200,000 outraged Australians signed Get Up’s petition asking for the Australian government to ban live export of cattle to Indonesia.  Australian viewers were disgusted by the footage on ABC’s Four Corners showing heartbreaking torture and mistreatment of cattle in Indonesian abattoirs. Even meat exporters here have said they would rather go out of business than be implicated in the terrible cruelty that those animals were subjected to.

If those same outraged Australian viewers could be shown asylum seekers being caned or whipped in Malaysia, or if they could be shown vision of their fellow human beings in what the President of the Malaysian Bar Association describes as the “degrading, demeaning and dehumanising and wholly unacceptable” conditions in Malaysian detention centres, wouldn’t they feel the same? The UNHCR says it faces serious challenges in monitoring the well-being of minors in Malaysia and that those children are forced to move around frequently and live in shelters that are often inadequate and lacking in safety and protection. Do Australians really believe that the Australian government will have more ease of access than the UNHCR?

I’m concerned about many aspects of refugee policy but I’m totally focused right now on Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen’s emphasis on the need to break “the people smuggler’s business model” even if this requires us to send unaccompanied children to Malaysia, a country which is not a signatory to several crucial conventions on human rights and the treatment of refugees.

On 2 June, on ABC TV’s Lateline, Minister Bowen said:

“I’ve been very clear that you need to send a strong message. I don’t want unaccompanied minors, I don’t want children getting on boats to come to Australia, thinking or knowing that there is some sort of exemption in place. I never want to go through … what we went through in December … it’s a matter of ensuring you have a robust system in place to break the model. I do not want to send the message that it’s okay to get on the boat if you fit one sort of particular category.”

Conditions at the Lenggeng Detention Depot

Minister Bowen is no doubt a compassionate man, and yes, it’s easy in a free country like Australia to criticise a national government making complex decisions about how to fulfil its international obligations, satisfy its voters and discourage people smugglers from putting vulnerable people in peril. But does Minister Bowen believe that citizens in this free country are prepared to trade asylum seeker children with Malaysia in the hope of deterring despicable people-smugglers? And does Minister Bowen, the legal guardian of asylum seeker children in Australia now, think that sending children to Malaysia accords with his duty of care as guardian, and his obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child? Among many other important obligations, that Convention requires Minister Bowen in all his actions concerning children to ensure that “the best interests of the child (are the) primary consideration” and that children are protected from harm; Minister Bowen is also obliged to ensure that children who are not in their family environment are given “special protection and assistance.”


The Australian government’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship Fact Sheet on Caring for Unaccompanied Minors states that in making decisions concerning the welfare and care of unaccompanied minors in immigration detention facilities, it draws on “the advice of people with expertise in child welfare, such as psychologists and state child welfare authorities”. I challenge Minister Bowen to provide Australians with credible advice from those experts confirming that it’s in the best interests and welfare of Minister Bowen’s legal wards to be ‘exported’ to Malaysia.

Parents and adults all over Australia need to give this current Malaysia “solution” serious thought. Whatever our views are on asylum seeker policy and even if some of us believe that the trading of asylum seekers with Malaysia proposed in this “solution” is good policy, Australians surely cannot allow children to be traded in this way. Breaking the people smugglers’ business model may be good policy, but causing more harm and distress to children whose lives have already been ‘broken’ is simply unconscionable. If you feel the same way, your options include writing to your MP and signing a petition such as the one currently open on the Amnesty International website here

If you were the legal guardian of a child who arrived here after enduring a terrifying journey and possibly having suffered terribly in their home country, what decision would you make? Would you send them to Malaysia as part of an attempt to break a people smuggler’s business model or would you put their welfare first? I know the decision I would make.

You can sign the Amnesty petition to the PM here, contact Chris Bowen here or contact the Prime Minister here. Make your voice heard. And what should the solution be?