Malaysia refugee deal a rare chance to end cruel treatment
JULIA Gillard’s latest offering on refugees, the Malaysia agreement, has been met with some scepticism, but it could be the circuit breaker we need to fix the harsh and costly treatment of asylum seekers.
It is notable that Richard Towle, the regional representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has given qualified approval. Many have forgotten Malaysia’s crucial role in finding solutions for hundreds of thousands of Indochinese refugees in the 1970s and ’80s as a country of first asylum. Indeed, Australia owes a great debt to countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand for helping to create the space that allowed Australia and other resettlement countries to process refugee claims in a climate characterised by common sense and practical approaches. Without regional co-operation, it could not have been done.
A false comparison has been made between Gillard’s latest arrangement with one of our neighbours and the Howard government’s Pacific Solution. The latest agreement has been criticised because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention and because of the significant cost. The first criticism is flawed and the second is plainly false.
The possible opportunities in the arrangement are that:
■Malaysia already does some heavy lifting, with more than 200,000 refugees, asylum seekers, stateless and other people of concern within their borders.
■Unlike Nauru, East Timor and Papua New Guinea, Malaysia is a country of first asylum and transit for many asylum seekers.
■The agreement builds on the Bali process, a regional initiative established in 2002 under the auspices of the Howard government.
■In 1998, the UNHCR executive committee recognised that irregular migration, people smuggling and asylum flows are complex matters, but concluded that a return to a transit country such as Malaysia may occur provided there are appropriate safeguards – accepted international standards and effective protection against refoulement.
■Asylum seekers should be seeking asylum at the first place where it is safe to do so, for example Malaysia. If the Gillard agreement helps create an environment of safety for individuals and offers opportunities for strengthening the regional protection system, then that is a good outcome.
■The UNHCR has a fully functioning office in Malaysia that assesses refugee status, and the arrangement with Malaysia could support the UNHCR.
Nauru, by contrast, is not and never was a transit country. It was an island prison that played no part in helping to build a regional solution.
The costs of the agreement with Malaysia are modest in comparison with past costs. Oxfam’s 2007 report A Price Too High: The Cost of Australia’s Approach to Asylum Seekersfound that in the six years since the Tampa crisis in August 2001, Australian taxpayers had spent more than $1 billion to process fewer than 1700 asylum seekers in offshore locations. At $292 million over four years, the deal with Malaysia is much better value for money.
The UNHCR and other agencies have long argued that these issues must be dealt with at source and in transit if people smuggling is to be tackled effectively. Towle recognises the significant contribution this agreement could make to a regional solution, saying this week: ”If it’s a good experience, other countries can look at it and … say … we want to embark on similar or other initiatives under a regional co-operation framework.”
While the overall framework of this agreement may be sound, the detail is scanty. But if it helps strengthen protection in the region, if it ensures people are treated with dignity and respect, and if it means durable solutions can be found more quickly, then let’s work with it.
It is true that Malaysia’s treatment of asylum seekers is far from ideal, and the UNHCR acknowledges this. That does not mean, however, that this agreement should be condemned outright. After all, Australia also has a blemished record. This could be an opportunity to work with Malaysia to tackle issues that exercise us all on protection, detention, trafficking and smuggling. We have shared problems, and only shared responses will pay long-term dividends.
This agreement also opens up new opportunities that many in the non-government sector have long been advocating: strengthening regional protection, helping stabilise populations in transit countries where they are safe, and developing the capacity of regional non-government organisations to support vulnerable people. There could be other benefits – if our leaders act on principle not populism.
So what should be in this agreement when it is finally negotiated? Here’s a checklist for our leaders:
■Explicitly stated respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms consistent with the 1951 refugee convention.
■Clear commitments and operational procedures that safeguard the interests of all parties.
■Explicit assurances that no one will be removed, expelled or extradited where there is a serious risk of refoulement or where they would be subject to the death penalty, torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment or persecution.
■A clear role for non-government organisations such as the Red Crescent in monitoring implementation of the agreement.
Governments are strengthened when they work with civil society and when both parties can build a position of trust – because both parties should be striving to find decency in action and the protection of vulnerable people in this agreement.
If this agreement is a cynical attempt to push a problem offshore, then it deserves to be condemned – but not yet, because we do not yet know. If it is the foundation stone for a new regional framework, then let’s embrace it as a chance to break the cycle of cruel treatment and destructive public discussion about asylum seekers.
John Menadue is a director of the Centre for Policy Development and a former secretary of the Department of Immigration.
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