Monday, July 25, 2011

Government abandons principles over Malaysia deal

Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has visited Kuala Lumpur to sign the Malaysian solution and now he and Prime Minister Julia Gillard are promoting it.

I have criticised Labor's resurrection of the Pacific Solution deal since it was announced in May, saying it's a quick political fix to a domestic problem. The deal betrays all that Labor allegedly stands for. Its own policy rejects offshore processing by requiring the humane treatment of asylum seekers on Australian soil. Until now, the party was also against dealing with a country that has not signed the Refugee Convention. This deal mocks Labor's criticism of the former Howard government's measures.

Let's not forget what Mr Bowen's predecessor, Chris Evans, once said of the Pacific Solution in 2008: "The Pacific solution was a cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise." Except now the ALP has resurrected that measure in all but name. The only difference today is that the Gillard government won't send people to Nauru.

The Greens were opposed to the Pacific Solution, and 10 years later, we're against the Malaysian solution. We oppose exporting our humanity and obligations to other countries. This new deal is not in Australia's short-term or long-term interests and simply undermines our principles and values of a fair go and compassion.

It will involve Australia spending nearly $300 million to try making an example of desperate asylum seekers. The Gillard government could take 4000 assessed refugees from Malaysia in a humanitarian gesture without 800 people having to risk their lives on boats first.

It is also not a long-term answer to a regional problem. By cutting side deals, the Gillard government has shown the Asia Pacific region it does not take the Bali process seriously. This process remains a regional forum to try addressing a regional problem. But rather than working with our neighbours, the federal government looked around to forge bilateral deals. First with East Timor, then Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. The East Timor idea fell apart, and the PNG proposal to reactivate the Manus Island facility is stalled, for now, while that country deals with internal political problems.

On June 14, Mr Bowen said Nauru was a failure that "did not break the business model, it broke the people". But Australia's detention centres are still breaking people today. Witness the suicides and self-harm incidents at centres including Villawood. Indeed, there's about 100 people on hunger strike at the Scherger centre at Weipa today. There were protests and fires on Christmas Island and roof-top protests in Darwin last week. A man who spent eight months in Woomera in 2001 told Adelaide media yesterday that he still has nightmares about his experiences.

Last month, the Prime Minister described Nauru as a "fundamentally weaker plan". Did she mean that her Malaysia deal is much harsher? I am sceptical that there will be basic bottom line protection for the deportees such as non-refoulement.  I am also wary about the guarantees of freedom from arbitrary detention and physical punishment. Indeed, the 800 asylum seekers will be accessing health and education services that are run by private companies, not the Malaysian government. The UNHCR is not a signatory to this deal and there have been no changes to Malaysian laws.

Meanwhile, the Australian government has yet to end the legal limbo for the more than 500 people who have arrived on Christmas Island since the May 7 announcement. We question whether the government will fulfil its promise to now assess their claims in Australia, after spending the past 11 weeks saying they would not set foot in Australia.

We can't vote against the Malaysia deal, because there's no legislation the government needs to present to parliament. It's using the same laws the former Howard government created after the Tampa. Nearly 10 years since that ship arrived, the language and measures the Australian government is using today suggests there's been little change in how Australia treats some of world's most vulnerable people.

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