Australian MPs reject refugee swap

Australia’s parliament has rejected a planned deal to send hundreds of refugees who arrive in the country by boat onto Malaysia, where they face indefinite detention.

The $US300 million agreement, which in turn will see Malaysia send 4,000, mostly Burmese, refugees to Australia, was heavily criticised by the UN’s human rights agency who noted that the arrangement would be illegal under Canberra’s obligations to the UN’s refugee convention, which Malaysia has not ratified. The majority of the asylum seekers bound for Malaysia will be sent to the back of the registration queue, despite perhaps already having spent months, if not years, in detention centres.

A motion to throw out the plan was brought to Australia’s lower house by Green Party MP Adam Bandt, which passed by 70 votes to 68.

The surprising backers of the motion were the conservative Liberal Party, who voted against the deal in order to push through a plan to send detained asylum seekers to a different offshore location on the Pacific island of Nauru. The island was recently visited by the Liberal Party leader, Tony Abbot, whose staunch anti-immigration policies have been criticised as hypocritical, given that his parents arrived in Austrlaia from Britain under the infamous ‘White Australia’ immigration initiative.

The vote marks the first time that the Labour government of Julia Gillard, herself also an immigrant, has been beaten in the Australian parliament.

Questions were raised however as to whether the vote would actually prevent the Australian government from completing its controversial policy. Ian Rintoul, of the Refugee Action Coalition, told DVB that, “The vote won’t have any affect on whether the deal actually goes ahead or not – that’s the tragedy of it, [although] it’s a good indication of the sentiment in the parliament”.

He said that the government did not require a vote. “The truth is that it’ll be done by a deal by government with the Malaysian government.”

The head of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, visited Australia last month where she expressed her concerns regarding the legality of the plan and concerns over how Australia treats asylum seekers from countries such as Burma.

Rintoul claimed that Pillay’s input “will have more impact – the government from the beginning has been insistent that there will be a high level of involvement with the UNHCR.

“If that is withdrawn that will have a significant impact in terms of the debate in Australia and the willingness of the government to proceed, but I don’t think it rules out them proceeding, such is their determination to press on with this disgraceful deal.”

Australia’s deeply politicised immigration policy is reflected in the Liberal party’s failure to back a deal that Rintoul describes as “entirely opportunistic”. He added that the Liberal party will continue to campaign for an agreement that will result in “even more brutal treatment for refugees”.

Australia is one of the most popular destinations for refugees fleeing Burma, both because of its proximity to Southeast Asia and its high living standards.

Despite being under populated, successive governments have exhibited anti-immigrant policies through initiatives such as the development of offshore detention facilities for asylum seekers, first mooted by former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard. Pillai, in her recent visit, also attacked Australia’s detention of asylum seekers, including children, who had committed no crime.

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