The winners and losers of the Malaysian solution

Media Releases, News, Opinion article written on the 09 Aug 2011

Now signed and sealed, the Australia-Malaysia asylum seeker-refugee transfer deal is about to be delivered with the imminent deportation of the first group of asylum seekers from Christmas Island. In the meantime, many are asking whether the agreement will work. The answer to this all depends, of course, on how you frame the problem.

If the problem is solely the arrival of asylum seekers in boats to Australia, and the goal is deterrence, then yes, it may work. Perhaps it will stop the boats. But what if we were to understand the problem in terms of the myriad complex and less visible factors that drive people to take the desperate measure of embarking on a dangerous sea voyage?

Not all asylum seekers are specifically looking to be resettled in Australia. Some don’t even know where they’re going when they get on the boat – the smugglers choose the destination. Like people fleeing conflict and persecution the world over, they are seeking the opportunity to have their claim fairly heard and a lasting solution to their displacement. Some just want to reunite with family members in Australia and see no other way.

What if Australia’s own policies – our broken detention network and family reunion system – are actually part of the problem? If we look at the problem in this way, then no, this deal between Australia and Malaysia will not work. It may form part of a broader, regional solution, but on its own it will not address the factors that leave people chronically unsafe and separated from loved ones. Such goals cannot be achieved bilaterally, or through deterrence.

In its measured public response to the signing of the arrangement, the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, has noted its preference that asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australian territory have their claims processed in Australia. The U.N. agency has also expressed its hope that the arrangement will, over time, contribute to lasting improvements in the safety and treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in both countries and across the region.

Perhaps the arrangements for transferred asylum seekers in Malaysia – such as the ability to work and access to healthcare – may prove a catalyst, over time, for gradual improvements in conditions for the 92,700 recognised (and estimated 200,000 actual) refugees, asylum seekers and other forcibly displaced people who are living in Malaysia now without any legal entitlements. And perhaps it will facilitate positive changes in Australia’s own blighted detention network, and ultimately encourage better treatment of refugees across the region more broadly.

I would love to share the hope that these benefits will arise. But I am more convinced that it is time to move beyond hoping for outcomes, to developing clearly and publicly articulated plans backed by solid and strategic investments.

These could include establishing systems for people’s claims to be fairly assessed, and for their livelihood, healthcare and other needs to be met while they wait for a lasting solution to their displacement. Any aid initiatives that support asylum seekers and refugees in the region must ensure that they also yield benefits for the local population in those countries.

We need to start talking about how effective, well-targeted resources can be used to build consistent standards of treatment and rights for asylum seekers and refugees across our region.

We also need to look at the human cost of the arrangement. We have been told that both countries will win and that people smugglers will lose – but of the asylum seekers and refugees, who are the winners and losers?

Clearly, the 800 transferred asylum seekers lose. That is the linchpin of this arrangement. But the extent of their suffering remains to be seen.

A number of important human rights assurances have been incorporated into the text of the agreement, including the international law principle that no person be returned to a country where they will face persecution or danger. But the text itself is not legally binding, and includes scant details as to howrights will be enforced and what remedies will apply in case of breaches.

As observed by the UNHCR, the critical test of the arrangement will be in its implementation, and in particular the checks that will apply in Australia for deciding whether asylum seekers should be transferred to Malaysia.

If Australia is genuine about its commitment that all affected people will be treated with dignity and respect, it needs to be modeling it from the outset. The potential use of force on Christmas Island and the plan to post footage of deportations on social media is deeply disturbing.

The 4000 refugees who will be resettled from Malaysia to Australia win. That is a very welcome step, and one that is well within our means and could have been done independently of this arrangement. We could in fact do much more. A former High Commissioner for Refugees suggested that wealthy countries commit to a resettlement quota for refugees of 0.1 per cent of their populations. We are two-thirds of the way to that modest target.

In terms of the other refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia and across the region, there are no clear winners among them yet through this arrangement. And that is what we need to work towards. So – could we do better? Certainly. Changes will not come overnight, but we can start by changing the conversation, and backing our words with investments.

It’s time to stop talking about deterrence, and start talking about real solutions for some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. We need to invest strategically in solutions for the many, not the few.

Andrew Hewett
Executive Director
Oxfam Australia

This opinion editorial was first published by On Line Opinion on Monday 8 August, 2011.