The Budget is imminent, but right now everyone’s talking about the government’s proposed ‘refugee swap’ program.
Sounds like a bad reality TV show, doesn’t it? ‘The tribe has spoken’, ‘you’ve been voted out of the Big Brother detention centre’ – in other words, no refugee status for you. If only that were the case.
Prime Minister Gillard announced this deal with Malaysia on May 7. Simply put, Australia plans to ship 800 asylum seekers directly to Malaysia (rather than to an ‘offshore’ processing centre), and in return 4000 refugees already resident there will be re-settled here. This swap will cost around $292 million, and apparently deal a ‘big blow’ to people smugglers.
Just how is this one-off deal going to ‘remove the product’ (to use the odious – but empty – phrase so beloved of the Coalition)? Well, Gillard didn’t exactly spell that out. She did make an obscure reference to sending people ‘to the back of the queue’ – another completely meaningless phrase, but one that clearly dogwhistles to those who’ve traded on the mythical idea that there is a queue, and that it can be jumped.
The implication is pretty clear, though. This deal is designed to send a message to would-be asylum seekers – not to people smugglers. Baldly put, it goes like this: we’ve sent your lot to Malaysia before, and we can do it again. Don’t think that you can risk your life to get to Australia, because we’ll just intercept your boat, turn you around and dump you on a country with an appalling human rights record. To add insult to injury, we’ll take five times as many from that country and foot the bill for them to live here.
And just who are these people, who are apparently so worthy that Gillard is prepared to expand Australia’s humanitarian refugee quota and pay a substantial amount of money to transport here? The likelihood is that they are Christians who fled from Burma with the help of – wait for it – people smugglers.
Now, there is no doubt that Burma is a country in terrible turmoil. Between natural disasters and the oppressive military regime, life there is clearly unbearable for tens of thousands of people. But what, exactly, is the difference between these refugees and those who attempt the sea voyage to Australia?
This is all about pandering to those who believe that some refugees are more deserving than others. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison peddle this idea on a regular basis, weaving a tale of people languishing in refugee camps all over the world, enduring with near saint-like patience while unscrupulous characters use their wealth and privilege to steal their chances at freedom and a better life.
I wish that were an exaggeration – but that is, in essence, one of the pillars of Coalition asylum seeker policy. Of course, it’s utter rubbish.
Both groups pay exorbitant amounts to flee – and they raise this money by selling every asset they own or borrowing money from lenders who are happy to recoup their investment via an extended period of extortion. The idea that those who come by boat are, in effect, idle rich who are a bit miffed with conditions in their homeland and so dip into their huge savings accounts has no basis in fact.
Both enter countries ‘illegally’ – insofar as fleeing persecution, crossing a border, approaching the authorities of that nation and requesting asylum is illegal. Which, of course, it isn’t.
Both have legitimate reasons to seek asylum, and in the vast majority of cases, are granted refugee status by the UNHCR.
And of course, Australia is by no means the only possible destination for those currently in Malaysia.
So where, exactly, is the difference between those who flee overland and those who come by sea? What makes one group more deserving of Australia’s welcome?
Is it because Gillard thinks these refugees in Malaysia might stand a better chance of ‘integrating’ into Australian society? There’s no evidence to suggest this might be the case. They’re not necessarily fluent English speakers, and it’s not like they have any familiarity with the staples of Australian life (McDonalds, Best and Less, wandering around in bikinis on Bondi Beach).
Do the refugees in Malaysia, perhaps, have special skills that we desperately need? It’s unlikely. Most refugees in Malaysia, while able to travel freely throughout the country, work illegally in unskilled labour (since they are unable to obtain work permits). They might well be highly skilled, but we have no way of knowing. Even if Malaysian authorities do keep such records, they won’t necessarily do us any good. Under the proposed agreement, Malaysia nominates which refugees Australia gets. We have little, if any, say in the choice.
Could it be, perhaps, that one group isn’t Muslim? Of course, asylum seekers who come by boat are of many different faiths, but the perception is that they are a homogenous group of Muslims who ‘aren’t like us’. They ‘wouldn’t integrate’. (We are apparently supposed to infer that Christians from other countries would.) That’s a perception the Coalition and News Limited are happy to foster – along with the suspicion that terrorists might lurk in their midst.
Now, it seems, the government is willing to do the same. They’re not saying that, oh no – but when you unpack the Malaysian deal, there’s just no good reason for it.
It doesn’t deter people smugglers. They know there will always be someone desperate enough to pay them, someone who gambles that just maybe they can end up somewhere better. Gillard’s claims that her ‘one-for-five’ swap will have any effect on the people smuggling trade are utterly without foundation – because the smugglers largely don’t care what might happen to the people they transport. The bottom line is money – and pushing a boatload of asylum seekers over to Malaysia won’t prevent them from acquiring a healthy bank balance.
It doesn’t streamline the refugee claims process, nor does it send anyone to the back of the ‘queue’. It merely offloads a responsibility that would otherwise have been ours onto another country. Worse, it removes protection from asylum seekers – Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN’s Convention on Refugees.
Remember when Gillard categorically ruled out re-opening the detention centre on Nauru because that country hadn’t signed the UN Convention? Rings a little hollow now, doesn’t it? (Incidentally, Gillard’s recent proposal – that the Manus Island centre be re-opened – failed to take into account that Papua New Guinea had also never signed the Convention. But that’s another story.)
It doesn’t prevent unrest, protests and violence at Australian detention centres. Gillard isn’t proposing to remove people from the system, just to re-direct the next 800 who turn up in the Indian Ocean. Nothing in this deal addresses the problems of overcrowding, long delays in processing or the psychological distress that is a known consequence of extended detention.
What it does do is enshrine the idea that some people – who just happen to be non-Arabic and non-Muslim – are worthy to have the government take extraordinary measures to aid them, while others do not even qualify for the most basic of human decencies.
Those others, by the way, may include pregnant women and children.
Abbott referred to this deal as a ‘Malaysian Solution’. It isn’t a solution. It isn’t even a stopgap measure designed to take the pressure off a system in crisis.
At best, it’s a token effort in the government’s ongoing struggle to convince the public that it’s working towards a ‘regional’ solution to the ‘problem’ of asylum seekers.
At worst, it’s a clear message that Muslims – or those who ‘look’ like Muslims – aren’t welcome here. That they aren’t ‘good enough’, or ‘worthy enough’ to justify the pitiful expense of processing their asylum claims in our excised zone, let alone on our mainland.
Last session in Parliament, Gillard frequently referred to the words and actions of former Prime Minister John Howard in a remarkably complimentary fashion. It seems now that she’s adopted another infamous saying of his, captured in the first few seconds of this ad:
The daylight between the government and Howard’s policies – and between the government and the Opposition – is shrinking fast. Both try to dress up xenophobia as something necessary to benefit Australia – either to ‘protect our borders’, or to ‘show fairness’. The pretence is wearing increasingly thin, though.
The Opposition point out that this latest ‘one-for-five’ deal is a pointless attempt to salvage a system in crisis, and that it’s bad for Australia. They’re right – but not for the reasons they think.
It’s not bad for us because we’ll get 4000 more already-processed refugees able to be immediately settled in the community. It’s not bad for us because we’re likely to get Malaysia’s cast-offs.
It’s bad for us because our Prime Minister has made it clear that she will cater to racists and fear-mongers by dumping Muslim asylum seekers in yet another perilous situation. It’s bad because it tells the world that Australia doesn’t want you if you’re not ‘the right sort of person’.
And it’s bad because it perpetuates the lie that people in desperate need are scheming, untrustworthy and inhumane. It dehumanises them by labelling them ‘queue-jumpers’, and further undermines the efforts of those who work to see all people treated with dignity.
Shame on you, Prime Minister. And shame on you, Mr Abbott, for scoring political points rather than truly holding the government to account for this revolting excuse for policy.