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Thursday May 12, 2011

Diplomatically Speaking By Dennis Ignatius

The problem of asylum seekers is a serious one and Malaysia is right to cooperate with other nations to curb human trafficking. However, any cooperation should not be to our disadvantage. And neither should it be premised upon an injustice.

Malaysia and Australia announced last week that both countries had reached an agreement in principle that would allow asylum seekers arriving Australia by boat to be transferred to Malaysia for “processing.”

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said that the deal would send a clear message to asylum seekers that they “can be sent directly to Malaysia where they will be at the back of the queue.”

Malaysia, for its part, believes that the agreement would send a strong signal that our country should not be used as a transit point and that human trafficking is something that we do not condone.

The agreement is highly controversial in Australia which has been struggling to deal with an influx of boat people or “irregular maritime arrivals” (IMAs), as they are rather euphemistically labelled. In the past 16 months, some 150 boats carrying 7,426 IMAs mostly from Sri Lanka, Iraq and Afghanistan have reached Australia. Few would qualify as genuine refugees.

Australian law, with its emphasis on human rights, makes it extremely difficult and costly for illegals to be summarily deported once they become subject to the Australian judicial system.

Other western countries also face the same conundrum. Over the last two years, for example, several hundred boat people from Sri Lanka have managed to reach the west coast of Canada. Within months, all but a handful of them were released pending a review of their cases. No one is under any illusion that any of them will eventually be deported.

The legal system in Canada is such that even murder suspects cannot be deported if there is a possibility that they might be subject to torture or other cruel and inhuman treatment, including the death penalty.

One of the beneficiaries of this benevolence is a Malaysian murder suspect wanted by our police. Malaysia’s request for his extradition has been denied on the grounds that he might face the death penalty. He is presently pursuing the Canadian dream as a free man.

Australia is therefore seeking to interdict illegals before they arrive in Australian waters and detain them in offshore detention centres well beyond the reach of Australian law. The objective is to literally let them rot in such centres as a warning to other would-be asylum seekers. Some might argue that this is the moral equivalent of extraordinary rendition.

Australia has been desperately seeking to persuade a number of different countries, including Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste, to serve as regional detention centres for Australia bound asylum seekers. None, however, have agreed until now. The deal with Malaysia is, therefore, a breakthrough for Gillard’s policy of outsourcing Australia’s detention centres.

While off-shore detention centres might make perfect sense for Australia, what is less clear is how it would benefit Malaysia.

Malaysia already plays reluctant host to tens of thousands of illegal immigrants and refugees. It is a well-documented fact that they endure great hardship and abuse.

The fundamental problem is that Malaysia has steadfastly refused to accede to the UN Refugee Convention. All refugees are treated as illegal immigrants and are subject to arrest, detention, punishment, and deportation. According to Amnesty International, more than 6,000 refugees are caned every year, while others have been trafficked to Thai gangs by corrupt local officials.

Given this situation, there should be genuine concerns as to the fate of those who are now going to be transferred from Australia. In an attempt to assuage public concern in Australia, our High Commissioner in Canberra has stated that the transferees would not be detained in Malaysia but would be allowed to “mingle” with the population at large.

What this “mingle” means is anybody’s guess, but one thing is certain: they will join the vast sea of suffering humanity that comprises Malaysia’s illegal population which is now estimated to number in excess of a million people.

There might even be questions about the legality of this whole exercise under Malaysian law. Will their refugee status be recognized by the Government? Will they be allowed to seek employment to support themselves? Will they be guaranteed safety from RELA harassment? How long will they be allowed to stay in Malaysia? What would happen to them if they are not accepted for resettlement in third countries?

Furthermore, there is a good possibility that rather than discouraging the use of Malaysia as a transit point it might well make us the principal holding area for would-be Australian asylum seekers. Do we want such a dubious distinction?

Clearly, unless Malaysia is prepared to radically alter its approach to illegal immigrants and refugees, we are headed for a right royal mess.

The problem of asylum seekers is indeed a serious one. Malaysia is right to cooperate with other countries to stymie the immoral work of people smugglers and human traffickers. As well, we certainly ought to take our obligations towards genuine refugees far more seriously than we now do.

Becoming a dumping ground for unwanted illegals or doing Australia’s dirty work, however, neither serves our interests nor does justice to asylum seekers.

The Government should seriously review this flawed initiative.