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Churches and the Malaysian Solution

  • 19 July 2011

The latest attempt to stem the flow of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat, the so-called 'Malaysian solution', is causing great angst in the community and with our political leaders.

This proposal involves people trading by the government of a democratic country committed to the rule of law. People trading is wrong even when part of a broader suite of policies designed to arrest trans-border flows and to ameliorate slightly some pressures on other governments accommodating large numbers of asylum seekers. Even if it works, it is wrong.

Any proper assessment of the proposal requires a consideration of the case of the bona fide refugees sent from Australia to Malaysia. They have no right to settle in Malaysia, no rights to work, education or welfare while their claims are undetermined, and no guarantee that their claims will be determined in a timely, transparent manner.

If the transfer to Malaysia is appropriate, so too would be return to Indonesia given that Australia has arrangements in place with the International Organisation for Migration and UNHCR there for some minimal accommodation of entitlements while awaiting status determination. We would essentially be deciding that protection is now available in Indonesia or Malaysia and that all persons heading for Australia are therefore engaged in secondary movement, not direct flight.

This is not part of a regional solution to a regional problem. At most it is a bilateral attempt at solving an Australian problem. Malaysia has 200,000 people to care for. That must be part of the so-called regional problem and solution. The one-off acceptance of 1000 refugees each year for four years is no durable contribution to that part of the regional problem.

If Nauru were to sign the Refugee Convention, if people were to be detained only for the purpose of identity, health and security checks, and then housed there humanely until their claims are processed (with at least the same standard of food, clothing and accommodation as Christmas Island), and if those proved to be refugees were to be guaranteed immediate release from detention and prompt resettlement, that would be preferable to the Malaysia option.

Everyone, including the strident supporters of the Howard-Ruddock Pacific solution, knows that it was a one-off