The irrational obsession with pulling out all stops to prevent asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia is placing our country at risk of being party to human rights abuses on refugees much worse than those of the Howard era.

This week, the federal government is taking the unusual step of having the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister conduct a joint diplomatic meeting with the Malaysian Prime Minister to “deepen co-operation with Malaysia to help crack down on people-smuggling.”

Unfortunately “cracking down on people smuggling” can easily mean cracking down on asylum seekers and refugees. Malaysia’s record in this regard is already worse than appalling. Unless the Australian government explicitly indicates its total opposition to this abuse and works to encourage Malaysia to bring them to a halt, it is quite likely that our strong urgings for Malaysia to tackle people smugglers will be used as a justification for even worse abuse of asylum seekers, refugees and other undocumented migrants.

I’ve written before on these horrific human abuses happening in our region. In The Age last week, Tom Allard, writing from Malaysia, also highlighted some of them.

Asylum seekers, including those registered as refugees, have been thrown in prison or detention camps.

There have also been cases, according to a recent US Senate report, of refugees — mostly those fleeing Burma — who have been sold to people traffickers and forced into prostitution or slave labour on fishing boats or plantations if they do not pay Malaysian authorities up to $575 for their freedom.


The UNHCR deputy representative in Malaysia, Henrik Nordentoft, says there are “great difficulties” for asylum seekers in Malaysia and that the boats intercepted recently along the route between Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia are “probably the tip of the iceberg”.

“You realise that there is desperation,” Mr Nordentoft says. ”You could queue and wait for years, your resources will be dragged, your protection is not guaranteed, your children don’t have a future. …. You can easily see why people are saying they are going to move on.”

Yet last week, we also had the extraordinary spectacle of the Malaysian High Commission to Australia, Salman Ahmad, denying his government was “soft on illegal migrants” or that Malaysia was a convenient transit point for people-smugglers.

“You have to understand that we (Malaysia) are doing our very best (to curb) this movement of illegals from wherever they are to our country. And to say we are a transit point is to imply that we are lax, and that is not correct.

The headline of that article — “Malaysia not soft on boatpeople” – has to be a strong contender for biggest understatement of the year. It is the equivalent of “The Pope not soft on abortion” or “Iranian government not soft on demonstrators.”

The atrocious mistreatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia is long-standing and well-documented. In addition to those already mentioned, Human Rights Watch has found that refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia are subject to arrest, detention, and deportation – the most fundamental breach of the Refugee Convention. Malaysia does not support the Refugee Convention, but Australia does and should not be supporting or encouraging other governments in allowing or carrying out such breaches.

Not only have Australians been mostly silent on these human rights abuses, it seems we may be happy to cooperate with the government that tolerates such activities in order to try to stop some of the victims of this abuse from getting to Australia.

Our public debate on the complex issues surrounding refugees, asylum seekers, forced migration and people smugglers is in danger of being reduced to grossly over-simplified assessments of policies as being either ‘soft’ or ‘hard’. It is also time we recognised the clear legal distinction between ‘people smuggling’ and ‘people trafficking’, which are related but very different types of activity.

There are no easy or complete solutions to this issue, but any solution which involves major human rights abuses should never be acceptable to Australians.

This originally appeared on Andrew Bartlett’s Crikey blog.