Refugees: Now we have the Malaysian solution, but what’s the problem?

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Opposition Leader Tony Abbott addresses Prime Minister Julia Gillard in parliament. Photo: AAP
If Julia Gillard’s “Malaysian solution” tells us anything, it’s that Tony Abbott’s stop-the-boats mantra has redefined the debate on refugees.

The Prime Minister has previously committed to not doing any deals with countries that were not signatories of the United Nations refugee convention, such as Malaysia. So why has she done so now? Because Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has frightened her.

He has revived the bogeyman that former prime minister John Howard so skilfully exploited at the time of the Tampa incident and after it. He made sections of the public think that refugees are evil people who must be kept off our shores at all costs. They are actually deeply traumatised people who turn out, in most cases, to be ordinary, hardworking people fleeing persecution, but calling them “illegals” proved to be very effective at demonising them.

When Kevin Rudd became prime minister, the government’s stance on boat people changed significantly. Six months later, the government made sweeping changes to the use of detention and delivered 90% of what people like me were asking for. All of those advances were lost within weeks of Abbott taking over as opposition leader, because he started beating the drum about the evils of boat people coming here.

This new plan is crazy. We know Malaysia is not a signatory to the UNHCR convention. We know Malaysia has a bad track record in its treatment of asylum seekers. We do not know what protections are built into the MOU and we don’t know what it will cost Australia. We don’t know what it will cost us parking 800 refugees there or receiving the 4000 Burmese here.

Why on Earth are they doing this? The arrival rate of boat people from January this year to the end of April is less than half the arrival rate for the corresponding period last year. What is the cause of alarm?

It seems to me that this reflects political unwillingness to stand up and say plainly, “We have obligations to refugees.”

Three streams of refugees arrive on our shores: those chosen by us in UN refugee camps, those who arrive by plane and boat people. Boat people are the smallest group. They are also the only people that we lock up for an indefinite time.

If we were getting 100,000 per year, then I could understand sharp measures might be needed. In our offshore resettlement programme, we receive 13,500 refugees a year. We receive about 300,000 new migrants here each year. The boat people arrival rate averages about 900 people a year. Last year there was a spike (about 6000). On any view, these are tiny numbers. So what is the “problem” for which Malaysia is the solution?

The riots at Villawood detention centre are bad PR because the government can exploit them to say that here is a group that must be kept away from us. But what happened at Villawood was completely predictable. If you take a bunch of innocent people and throw them into gaol indefinitely, they will eventually break. They will harm themselves or their prison. When they break, we punish them.

It is not only insanely harmful to lock up innocent people indefinitely, it is also insanely expensive. It costs about $1600 per person per day to hold people on Christmas island.

Christmas Island is used because it’s out of sight, out of mind. It is hard to get to places like Christmas Island so it’s almost as if they are not here at all. Given the spike in arrivals last year, it became unworkable to hold them all on Christmas Island, which is why this Malaysia plan came about. We wouldn’t need the Malaysian solution if we noticed that it is not necessary to lock up boat people indefinitely.

There is an alternative. Detain boat people initially, but cap it at one month for health and security checks. That initial detention could be extended if a court was persuaded that it was necessary in a particular case. After initial detention, release them into the community, on conditions designed to make sure they remain available for processing (and removal if necessary). One condition might be that, pending a decision, they should live in regional Australia. There are plenty of regional areas in Australia that would be happy to see their populations boosted.

If the Government adopted a scheme like that, it would be vastly less expensive, even if the refugees stayed on Centrelink benefits the whole time they were here. It would cost about 20 percent of the Christmas Island solution, even if they stayed on benefits. (In fact, most adult male boat people are keen to get to work). Just think: we could save money, help the regions and treat boat people decently all at one go. It just takes a bit of imagination, and a bit of political will.

Talk about the evil of people smugglers is simply a proxy for beating up on refugees. It’s dishonest. Everyone seems to have overlooked the fact that that Oskar Schindler was a people smuggler. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a people smuggler. The captain of the St Louis, Gustav Schroeder, was a people smuggler. They may be a rum lot overall but they do help save lives and they are performing a service that these people are desperate to have.

All this hostility to boat people is puzzling for another reason: we condemn these people for doing exactly what we would do in the same circumstances.

You have to accept that many of these boat people are Hazaras fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan. NGOs in Afghanistan say the Taliban have been particularly active in the last 18 months and in places like Quetta (just over the border in Pakistan), Hazaras are shot on sight. I have a Hazara friend who was there recently to see his parents and he was too scared to go outside. Even in Kabul, Hazaras are blown up while doing the shopping. Who wouldn’t want to flee?

They flee; they get to Malaysia or Indonesia. They can apply to the UNHCR for refugee status but when they get it, they have to wait as long as 15 years for a country to agree to resettle them. In the meantime, they live in the shadows. They can’t send their kids to school. They can’t work. They are thrown in gaol if they are found. I can understand why they decide to take a risk, get on a leaky boat, and come to Australia.

Imagine being in that situation with your children. What would you do?

We should not punish them for doing exactly what we would do in the same situation. They have the courage and initiative to get here: we should welcome them.

Do you agree that Tony Abbott has changed the character of the debate? Is there are real problem here that needs to be addressed? Please let us know what you think in the comments section below.