This week many eyes and ears will be attuned to whether the legislation to revive the so-called Malaysian Solution will be passed by House of Representatives. It would seem that even if it is passed, it will not get through the Senate. Regardless, there is a significant argument for engaging with transit countries in our region that bear the burden of hosting far more asylum seekers than Australia does.
The UNHCR has always expressed that it would prefer that Australia process asylum seekers who arrive on our shores. But given Australia’s desire to negotiate with Malaysia for offshore processing, they were a key player in developing some unique protection standards for our region. Whether the agreement comes off or not, we have begun a very valuable discussion with Malaysia, and hopefully others in the region, about how Australia can play a lead role in supporting countries that host a vast number of asylum seekers compared to Australia.
For many, the idea of a “people swap” was the element that undid the Malaysian agreement and indeed the High Court ruled against the possibility based on current legislation. But let us not forget that it is unlikely Nauru or Manus Island could ever have been a place for processing if it had been challenged in the High Court at the time. After all, the High Court struck down Howard government legislation that the current government utilised to negotiate with Malaysia.
The key element in all of the politics of where asylum seekers should or shouldn’t be sent is their safety and appropriate care. This is why the call for onshore processing has become so prominent and it is an important ethical call. But we cannot stop at the borders of Australia.
Whether or not the Malaysian agreement can be implemented, the current government and the UNHCR in their negotiations with Malaysia created some innovative policies for durable solutions for a range of asylum seekers beyond the 800 that were proposed to be transferred. The agreement included the acceptance of 4000 recognised refugees into Australia, additional funding for the UNHCR to process and care for many of the 95,000 asylum seekers and initiated an understanding that Australia can play a role in our region that will expand protection for many who are seeking safety in our region.
All of which mirrors the momentous agreement to include protection mechanisms and bilateral agreements for a regional co-operation framework, into the agenda of the Bali process, in March this year.
Ultimately, Australia should not have to transfer anyone to another country for processing. We have the means and a comparably small population to deal with as opposed to other countries. But it’s naïve to think we can simply process people onshore without seriously considering how people move across our region to come to Australia and how we may support other countries to find durable solutions for asylum seekers who may wish to stay within a similar cultural context and close to their home country in case they can return.
If it comes to it, we may take away the “people swap” element of the Malaysian agreement but there remain some valuable aspects of the agreement that we should pursue, to not only support our neighbours who bear the greatest burden but to move towards a real solution in our region.
*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.