Welcome to a new chapter in Australia’s immigration policy. The government yesterday announced the details of its Malaysian Solution policy, a plan it hopes will diminish the number of asylum seekers arriving on our coastlines by boat.

Essentially, it’s a swap deal: Malaysia accepts 800 “boat people” from Australia, Australia takes 4,000 “genuine refugees” from Malaysia and resettles them into the community.

The next 800 asylum seekers to arrive by boat in Australia will be flown to Malaysia within 72 hours. There, the Australian government will pay for their basic living expenses and maintain responsibility for the asylum seekers for as long as they are in Malaysia. Malaysia agreed to allow these arrivals to work, a right not extended to other asylum seekers in Malaysia. The plan is to resettle these asylum seekers in a third country. Australia will cover all costs of the planned four-year deal, with the total price tag currently estimated at $296 million — a cost of $54,000 to $95,000 per person, notes The Daily Telegraph.

Children, pregnant women, the sick, elderly and unaccompanied minors who arrive by boat in Australia could all be sent to Malaysia. “There is no blanket exemption,” said Gillard, although exceptional circumstances would be examined on a case-by-case basis.

Originally Julia Gillard declared that all boat arrivals who had reached Australian shores since the Malaysian Solution was first announced would be sent to Malaysia once the details were finalised. To the sharp relief of over 500 recently arrived asylum seekers on Christmas Island, Gillard backed down from that decision. When the news reached Christmas Island “loud music and cries of joy were heard at two detention camps,” reports Nick Butterly and Andrew Tillett in The West Australian.

The main focus on the deal is to stop people smugglers, says Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Dato Seri Hishammuddin bin Tun Hussein, who told a joint press conference with Australia’s immigration minister Chris Bowen “the targets, and the people we really want to send a clear message [to] are the syndicates who are profiting on innocent people”.

The Greens are unimpressed, with a statement from immigration spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young declaring “Australians should not be fooled by the government’s insistence that this impending arrangement will protect the rights of 800 vulnerable people”.

“Is Malaysia going to be giving the basic bottom line guarantees of protection — such as non-refoulement, freedom from arbitrary detention, physical punishment, the right to work and access to health and education — to everyone when there have been no changes in its domestic laws?” asks Hanson-Young. “It seems unlikely these bottom line guarantees will be met if the UNHCR has not signed the deal.”

The UNHCR will monitor the Malaysian policy and witnessed the signing of the deal.

This policy might stop the boats but it won’t stop Gillard getting voted out at the next election, says Andrew Probyn from The West Australian:

“It’s draconian, tough and hard-line, with more than an echo of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution… But while an ability to strike agreements has helped the Prime Minister hold her Government together, it is not going to be enough for Ms Gillard. If she is going to save Labor from oblivion at the next election she must somehow translate her deal-making skills into winning over a broader constituency: the voters.”

It’s a risky policy for Gillard, since more boat people than the allocated 800 could arrive in Oz or the ones sent to Malasyia could have their human rights violated, notes Michelle Grattan in The Age:

“Much will depend on how the arrangements for oversight — involving both countries and the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration — work in practice. While there are many dangers and question marks, if the deal works out as both countries hope the Gillard government stands to neutralise one of the opposition’s most potent issues.”

The Australian government is now involved in the trade of humans yet it’s not going to stop the boats coming, declares the Herald Sun editorial:

“The swap of 800 asylum seekers from Australia for 4000 confirmed refugees from Malaysia creates a number of damning and offensive precedents, while doing little to resolve the plight of the thousands who fall victim to the people smugglers.”

Today just signals the start of the next four years in asylum seeker policy.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey