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Australia in controversial refugee swap

Australia has struck a deal with the Malaysian government to accept thousands of refugees, mostly Burmese, living in the country in return for Malaysia taking on the burden of hundreds of boatpeople that arrive in Australia each year.

Canberra’s Labour government announced that it will send around 800 asylum seekers to camps in Malaysia over the next four years, whilst taking 4,000 UN-processed refugees who live there in crowded camps awaiting resettlement.

Australia will foot the bill for the deal, paying Malaysia a reported $AUS300 million ($US322.8 million). Immigration minister Chris Bowen said in a statement that the main message of the so-called Regional Cooperation Framework was for asylum seekers heading to Australia to “[not] get on that boat.”

Thousands of asylum seekers arrive by boat in northern Australia each year after gruelling, often hazardous, sea journeys. But the deal, Bowen said, “will help put people smugglers out of business and prevent asylum seekers making the dangerous journey to Australia by boat.”

Under the arrangement, a statement said, those send to Malaysia would be placed at the “back of the queue” for resettlement. This comes despite the falling numbers of ‘boatpeople’, as sea-bound refugees are often termed – the Independent newspaper notes that 940 asylum seekers arrived by boat this year compared with some 2,000 in the corresponding period last year.

The agreement was a result of the 4th Bali Process Regional Ministerial Conference on people trafficking in March. Activist Pranom Somwong alleged that the deal used anti-trafficking rhetoric, when in actual fact the Australian government was seeking to placate a distinctly anti-immigrant sentiment amongst Australia’s population, many of whom, including Prime Minster Julia Gillard and leader of the opposition Tony Abbot, are recent immigrants themselves.

The two, both of whom or who’s families arrived under Australia’s previous immigration policy, termed “White Australia”, which officially ended in 1973, have themselves been accused of racism.

Ian Rentoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition of Australia, earlier told DVB that “the racism of the Labour party is quite disguised”, whereas “the racism of the Liberals is very much on display”. Liberal leader Abbott is famous for statements such as “the great prize of Australian citizenship is insufficiently appreciated and given away too lightly”.

Gillard defended herself from critics when she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: “For people to say they’re anxious about border security doesn’t make them intolerant. It certainly doesn’t make them a racist – it means they’re expressing a genuine view.”

Of the bilateral agreement, Abbot told the BBC that “Today we’ve seen a panicked announcement from a government which is proving yet again that it’s both untrustworthy and incompetent,” despite the policy being appropriated from Abbot’s right leaning Liberal party.

Australia has been criticised in the past for the practice of offshore detention camps started by former Liberal party Prime Minister John Howard, who built various immigration centres in the Pacific nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru. He said in 1988 that “it would be in our immediate-term interest and supporting of social cohesion if it [Asian immigration] were slowed down a little.”

These centres have also been under the spotlight, with the thousands detained each year often kept in conditions that have sparked numerous protests, with one Burmese man earlier this year setting himself alight.

Malaysia-based human rights lawyer Charles Hector has asserted that Malaysia is already home to roughly five million undocumented migrants, with those unfortunate enough to find themselves in detention centres also regularly protesting the dire conditions.

The Malaysian government is routinely criticised for its refusal to become a signatory to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), earlier told DVB that detainees were subject to malnutrition and disease, whilst government officials had profited from the trade in people. The US government has repeatedly condemned Malaysia’s track record on human trafficking.

Recent cases have also painted a negative picture of the Malaysian justice system. Lawyer Hector is currently in court facing charges of defamation for publicly defending Burmese migrant workers who were not receiving their contractual dues. The company in question, Asahi Kosei, hit back by saying that the workers were not employed by them, but rather brokers, a system that critics say abrogates legal responsibility from employers.


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