EDITORIAL: Labor's backflip on asylum-seekers
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, May 28, 2011
In another extraordinary policy reversal, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has embraced the Howard Government’s policy of off-shore processing of asylum-seekers — announcing that Labor will re-open the Howard Government’s Manus Island detention centre, and establish a new detention facility in Malaysia to take 800 asylum-seekers.
The Manus Island detention centre was established by the Liberal Government 10 years ago as part of its “Pacific Solution” of off-shore processing of asylum-seekers, along with Nauru. It was closed in 2004, long before Labor came to power, because the policy dissuaded people from making the hazardous journey from Indonesia to Australia in unseaworthy boats.
Off-shore detention was denounced by Labor at the time as inhumane and ineffective, and, after Labor’s election in 2007, Kevin Rudd ended it and closed the off-shore facilities.
Gillard’s about-face on asylum-seekers is remarkable, at a number of levels.
First, it recognises that Labor’s policy of handling boat arrivals has completely failed. The Christmas Island detention centre is full, and Labor has had to expand detention facilities on the mainland to deal with the influx of thousands of people who have been able to raise thousands of dollars per person for a place on small boats which have set sail from Indonesia.
When Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007, he promised that Labor would “get tough with” people-smugglers who have made millions of dollars from people-trafficking.
In fact, his policy did the opposite, leading to a massive increase in the number of illegal arrivals. This was one of the issues which caused the collapse in public support for the Rudd Government prior to Mr Rudd being deposed by Julia Gillard in 2010.
The fact that existing detention facilities are over-crowded has caused riots which have erupted in several centres over recent months. One particularly violent riot destroyed large parts of the Villawood Detention Centre in New South Wales.
Second, the Gillard refugee policy follows an announcement in 2010 that Australia would locate an off-shore detention facility in East Timor. That announcement followed a discussion between the Australian Prime Minister and East Timor’s President, José Ramos Horta.
However, President Horta is East Timor’s head of state, a largely symbolic post, and he had no authority to speak on behalf of the Timorese Government. When the Gillard proposal was considered by East Timor’s Parliament, it was defeated unanimously. Not even Horta’s friends supported it.
One curious aspect of Gillard’s latest announcement is that she has decided that new arrivals will be taken to Malaysia, and a joint announcement to this effect was made by Australian and Malaysian government ministers.
Yet Malaysia has not signed the international refugee convention, and treats refugees inside the country in an appalling way. The Australian Government cannot claim to have been ignorant of this fact.
Amnesty International published a report on Malaysia’s treatment of refugees last year. It said, “Malaysia does not officially recognise refugee status, placing itself at odds with its international obligations and creating serious risks to the human rights of refugees and asylum-seekers.”
It added, “Refugees and asylum-seekers are still considered ‘illegal’ migrants in Malaysia. They have no formal legal status or right to work. Despite recent government promises, they face the daily prospect of being arrested, detained in squalid conditions, and tortured and otherwise ill-treated, including by caning.
“They face the constant fear of being forced to return to a country where they may be stripped of their rights or even killed.” (Abused and Abandoned: refugees denied rights in Malaysia, June 2010).
When the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, called for the Gillard Government to reintroduce off-shore processing last year, and specifically proposed the re-opening of the Nauru Detention Centre, he was pilloried by Julia Gillard and her Immigration Minister, in part because Nauru had not signed the International Refugee Convention, even though the detention centre in Nauru was run by Australia.
With breathtaking hypocrisy, the Gillard Government now proposes to send asylum-seekers to Malaysia!
There are other aspects of the Malaysia solution which are completely unsatisfactory. In return for housing (temporarily) 800 asylum-seekers from Australia, at a cost to Australia of over $200 million this year, Australia has agreed to take an additional 4,000 refugees from Malaysia.
As most of the refugees in Malaysia are people from Burma (Myanmar) who do not want to come to Australia, there is every likelihood that many of those who come to Australia will, in fact, be people whom Australia has shipped to Malaysia in the first place, along with thousands of others.
If this eventuates, the “Malaysian solution” might further encourage people to undertake the hazardous journey by boat from Indonesia to Australia.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.