Jul 26, 2011

How can we tell if the Malaysian deal works?

It's unclear whether the Malaysian deal will work and it has risks, but it is the least-worst solution currently available form the major parties.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

It's not clear whether the Government's announcement on 7 May about a deal on asylum seekers had a significant deterrent effect on boat arrivals. What is clear is that there has been a huge fall in the number of arrivals this year, even before 7 May. The dirty secret of the asylum seeker debate is that something is stopping the boats, but it's most likely the shift in asylum seeker sources away from the Asian region toward Europe over the course of 2010.

Having spent so long insisting "push" factors were the key to the rise in asylum seekers heading for Australia, the deal with Malaysia finally announced yesterday looks awfully like an acknowledgement that "pull" factors are critical. The test will only really come when there's another surge in asylum seekers in our region, courtesy of civil war or, as recent history suggests is more likely, people like us invading other countries. The deal, of course, doesn't apply to the much larger number of asylum seekers who arrive by air, who are the subject of a strange conspiracy of silence across all disputants in the debate; the official line for all sides is that the real issue is stopping dangerous maritime journeys, but it's odd how the "queue jumper" rhetoric seems to vanish despite the fact that people arriving by boat have a far higher success rate in applying for humanitarian visas than those arriving by air. Plainly, people coming through airports don't push the buttons of hostility in Australians that boat arrivals do, despite boat arrivals being subjected to far heavier vetting and screening than people going through Customs on a tourism visa. Still, the deal falls over the line for the Government: the UNHCR will be closely involved in monitoring the deal, despite not signing but merely (and pointedly) "noting" the agreement yesterday, although Labor would have been pleased the UNHCR's statement made a clear reference to the purpose being to prevent loss of life at sea. It loosely fits the "regional solution" rhetoric that Julia Gillard has been pushing since her first frantic days as Prime Minister and her to-do list of watering down the mining tax, pandering to hostility toward asylum seekers and pretending to do something about climate change. There is criticism both that the conditions detainees sent to Malaysia will face are too generous, and that they are too harsh, which will be spun as evidence the Government "got the balance right". The issue of unaccompanied minors has been dealt with via a rule of "no blanket exemptions" (the Government had no choice, given any exemptions would operate like TPVs and encourage boat arrivals) but with the wriggle room that case-by-case judgments will be made. Best of all -- or should that be least worst of all -- it expands, albeit only for four years, Australia's humanitarian intake, the single best thing a wealthy country can do for asylum seekers. What it also does is outsource a political problem to the Malaysian Government. Guarantees about the treatment of detainees sent to Malaysia won't be worth a great deal if anything untoward befalls one of them, even accidentally -- the federal government will be held responsible under the same logic that had Peter Garrett responsible for "industrial manslaughter" because of shonks in the insulation industry. And how much is a commitment on human rights from the Malaysian Government worth anyway? This is a government with a wretched human rights record and a long history of abuse of its own citizens, let alone those from other countries. Much political damage could accrue to Labor from things that are entirely outside its control. However, it will be counting on events in Malaysia being out of the gaze of most voters, compared to rooftop protests at Villawood that are all too public. It's a shaky policy, with plenty of risk, and it will be hard to tell whether it works or not given the current lull in asylum seeker movements in our region. But contrary to the all the noise from both Left and Right, it's a better policy than the Coalition's, which consists of TPVs -- that have a proven history of leading to the deaths of asylum seekers -- and spending a billion dollars warehousing people in Nauru for two years before bringing them all to Australia. And if it does work, it'll be time to move Chris Bowen to somewhere where his skills are put to better use than cleaning up one of Labor's longest-running messes.

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72 thoughts on “How can we tell if the Malaysian deal works?

  1. Michael James

    Bernard, you keep forgetting the key reason that people don’t see asylum seekers arriving by air as a problem.

    1. They don’t arrive by job lot as they do in a boat
    2. Their chosen method of arrival isn’t illegal
    3. Their chosen method does not rely on paying people smugglers to be shipped here in leaky boats with the chance of drowing thrown in
    4. Anyone who gets onto a plane to Australia has had to present proof of identity at several steps of the journey, making it much harder for people with no (or discarded) documentation from arriving here.

    That’s why people arriving by air have less successful track record, because they have already been vetted before they step on a plane.

  2. cpobke

    Would be interested to hear a response from someone on point 4 from Michael. It is often suggested that the absense of papers verifying identity is a core driver in the differences in processing and general level of controversy.

  3. Jimmy

    CPobke – I’m more interested in point 2 which seems to make out that arriving by boat is illegal when it quite obviously isn’t.

  4. Stevo the Working Twistie

    Spot on Jimmy. Unless we have repudiated the UN Convention since I last looked? No? The fact is that arriving by boat is an act of desparation. Arriving by plane and pretending to be a tourist while planning to overstay and work illegally is the real crime.

    And how will we know the “Malaysian Solution” has worked? Simple – when Australia’s reputation as a just and fair country with respect for international law and human rights has been comprehensively trashed. Be proud.

  5. skink

    ‘Prime Minister John Howard has repeatedly proven to be one of the most sensible leaders in the Western world.’

    Anders Behring Breivik

  6. ConnorJ

    “4. Anyone who gets onto a plane to Australia has had to present proof of identity at several steps of the journey, making it much harder for people with no (or discarded) documentation from arriving here.”

    That would almost make sense if ASIO hadn’t kept people locked up for years because they couldn’t adequetely prove their identitities.

  7. stephen martin

    Maybe the place of origin of arrivals has a bit to do with attitudes. Air arrivals mostly from Europe and boat arrivals from Asia. Personally I hope that this is not the case.

  8. David Hand

    The pull factors attracting economic migrants has been taken away. Bernard can test this idea through observation if he wants but the rest of us know that fewer people will be willing to part with the equivalent of a first class air ticket for a dangerous ocean crossing that lands you in Malaysia.

    The problem has always been one of border control and identification, not immigration, not refugees and not islam (though I acknowledge the right has a lunatic fringe that espouses those views, they are rejected by most people).

    Border control is not an issue at an airport where each traveller must be positively identified with a passport. Though many people overstay their visas, they are here illegally, have an identity but have limited access to social services. Bernard puzzles, like so many urban left elites, why middle Australia doesn’t care about airport arrivals. Bogan western Sydney residents should in his mind be xenephobic about everyone and the fact that they’re not upsets the narrative.

    An anonymous person with not a skerrick if identification finds Christmas Island attractive because once through that channel, permanent residency is achieved if he or she is found by immigration officials to be a refugee. It used to be a channel with a 95% success rate. Not any more.

  9. GocomSys

    Give the new policy a chance! Keep monitoring it! Modify it if necessary. In the meantime please stop the ongoing moronic media and LNP chatter. It isn’t helpful!

  10. Phen

    The Malaysian Solution is a rare bit of common sense and pragmatism from the Gillard Govt. Now hopefully it has its desired results as a “pull factor”-based solution.

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