Australia finds no deal to help asylum seekers

The Senate upheld a High Court’s decision to scrap an extra-territorial solution to  people smuggled by boat into Australia in a dramatic vote, 39 against 29.

This is a nail in the coffin of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s benchmark policy to solve human smuggling. It also puts to rest Gillard’s “Malaysian Solution”—a deal that allows Australia to take in 4,000 genuine refugees from Malaysia in exchange for the deportation and processing of 800 boat arrivals within four years.

The High Court ruled out the deal in August last year on the grounds that Malaysia has no legal obligation to protect asylum seekers, a requirement under Australia’s Migration Act.

Refugee coalition groups in Australia also noted Malaysia rejected any responsibility in the protection of refugees and asylum seekers.

In Malaysia, the Lawyers for Liberty based in Selangor earlier supported a memorandum endorsed by various organisations against Australia’s “misguided refugee outsourcing deal.”

We, the undersigned civil society organizations, wish to express our opposition to the proposed Australia-Malaysia bilateral agreement, in principle, to transfer the next 800 asylum seekers seeking asylum in Australia to Malaysia.

Although the terms of the joint agreement remain vague, we are of the view that the Australian Government is making a mistake in arranging this joint agreement with the Malaysian Government which is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (“Refugee Convention”). This proposed exchange is a misguided approach in dealing with a complex issue that will cause serious ramifications as Malaysia has a long record of abuse and mistreatment of people seeking protection. This arrangement, if implemented, may lead to the violation of the rights of transferred individuals to Malaysia.

Two boatloads of asylum seekers arrived on Christmas Island, north off Australia in just 10 days.  Media reports counted about 130 people were rescued, one body was recovered and three people went down with the vessel. Wednesday’s incident came just days after another boat capsized, with 110 people saved but an estimated 90 killed.

Toddlers are among the latest boat arrivals. (Photo: Danile Wilkins)

The twin tragedies alerted the Federal government. The Lower House convened and passed a bill on Wednesday to allow offshore processing of asylum seekers. However,  the breakthrough was immediately dashed off by the Senate on Thursday. Heated debates lasted up to the wee hours of Friday morning.

The bill authored by Independent Rob Oakeshott is called the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. It allows Australia to send asylum seekers to Malaysia and the island of Nauru in the South Pacific for processing.

The Opposition reached a compromise, but the Australian Greens were against the proposed deal and therefore voted against the bill in both houses.

The Parliament will go into a winter recess while more boats are expected to arrive within the next few weeks.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen pronounced a macabre prediction that more boat people are expected to die while politicians are having a 6-week holiday break, the SBS reported.

A boatload of people is spotted approaching Christmas Island. (Photo: Express MV Bison)

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie also said parliamentarians should not be going into recess when such an important matter remained unresolved.

“We should be sitting today, we should have continued sitting last night, we should sit next week, we should sit until we get a solution,” he told state broadcaster ABC.

“I think there is every chance in the world that more people will die during this six-week recess,” he said.

Gilliard earlier blamed the High Court for Australia’s failure to deal with human smugglers. She said the High Court-Senate is sending a message to people smugglers to load more people to come to Australia.

Amid prolonged parliamentary processes, Gillard announced the formation of a panel composed of “experts” such as former defence chief Angus Houston, former top diplomat Michael L’Estrange and refugee advocate Paris Aristotle. She said the panel will assess all asylum policy options. The “Multi Reference Group of MPs” will also work in consultation with the panel.

Since 1976, more than 27,000 people have risked their lives on boats in a desperate bid to arrive in Australia, a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

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