It has been said that the Malaysian agreement is a political exercise to deal with the current debate on asylum seekers in Australia.  In many ways it would be naïve to say this is not true.  But whether the government intended it or not, engaging with countries in our region who receive the most refugees and struggle to deal with them means the Malaysian agreement has legs.

There is no doubt that the UNHCR is nervous. It is apparent that it negotiated long and hard with both governments to achieve a viable outcome, not only for the 800 that will be transferred from Australia but with an eye to the other 90,000 odd that cannot afford to get on a boat out of desperation to try their chance in Australia.  Negotiating a deal is one thing, seeing it come to fruition is another.

The greatest challenge for Australia now lies in the reality that even if the boat arrivals cease, how else will we support our neighbouring countries to deal with a challenge of receiving asylum seekers that is far beyond our own scope. To paint the picture, Malaysia has more than 90,000 asylum seekers needing protection, Indonesia, less so but still in the multiple thousands. Thailand hosts hundreds of thousands and yet Australia cries foul if we receive more than the usual 5000 by plane, which in reality few people actually know about.

Beyond this challenge is the reality that we must find a way to balance those whom cannot afford to move beyond the location to which they have fled, inevitably being stuck in a refugee camp or in poverty in an urban centre around the world, and those who pool their resources to try another option such as travel to Australia using a people smuggler. At the end of the day the reality is that there is a 1% chance that recognised refugees by the UNHCR including those in refugee camps, will get a re-settlement place in another country. Do your maths and the odds are not worth betting on. There is little wonder that people pay, if they can, to get to a better option.

The key question is how under the Refugee Convention relating to refugees we preference the 15 million or more in the world who need protection.  Personally I have been distressed at the arguments that those who can afford to come by boat have some sort of precedence over those who cannot afford to make the journey.  They may not be any less worthy of protection but they do have an opportunity that the other 14 million so not.   I recognise this this is a tricky argument given Australia has signed the Refugee Convention and does have obligations.  But let’s not get too carried away with what is a global reality and a vexed issue for most countries.

For the record that I think the Refugee Convention is a sound instrument to be used in any basis for refugee protection. For those who argue it is irrelevant, I would challenge them with the task of trying to negotiate a new agreement in the current global context.  It took a world war and the massacre of  millions of innocents to get to agreement of the Refugee Convention.   Whether we think it is not current or not, I for one would not want to try and re-negotiate the protection of individuals in the current global context with a better result.  Thus, I will maintain my commitment to it.

However, the questions are not simple nor are the answers.  The Malaysian agreement may be a unique agreement in the world between a convention signatory and a non-convention signatory country  but there is a cost to not negotiating with those who are burdened the most and who may not be able to afford, literally, to sign the convention.  The overall message is that there are not enough settlement places in the world and so, yes if people do not feel safe where they are, they will seek a new horizon.  Let’s not be so privileged to think we may not also, given the same circumstances.

The real challenge we have here is that we are a wealthy country, who has signed the Refugee Convention and is surrounded by sea.  That makes us hard to get to, but a spotlight for those seeking safety.  We cannot afford to ignore the plight nor burden of our neighbours in hosting far more asylum seekers than we do.  But we must consider our place and position in how many asylum seekers or refugees we will take and how.  Given this reality, it is hard not to argue that our place in our region is not only to support financially those countries that are burdened by vast asylum arrivals but also to take a strong stand on accepting recognised refugees onto our shores at a far greater rate than we do.  If we don’t we will always be a target for arrivals and will fuel the people smuggler context.

At the end of the day there has to be a balance between the haves and the have nots, even if they are all in need.  Ultimately, this is not a new argument and there are no easy answers, which is why we are in such a vexed position when it comes to the Malaysian agreement.

*Caz Coleman is a member of the Council for Immigration Services and Status Resolution, advising the federal Minister for Immigration.  Opinions expressed are her own.

Peter Fray

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