As the Qantas A380 taxied into its landing bay at Sydney airport late on December 15, I turned on my mobile phone to receive a text message from my chief of staff. It simply read: “Catastrophic boat crash at Christmas Island. At least 30 drowned. Waiting for you in the arrivals hall.”
I was returning from a trip to Kuala Lumpur and Geneva where I had discussed our idea for a regional deal for Australia to take more refugees from Malaysia in return for Malaysia accepting asylum-seekers that arrive in Australia by boat.
The news that greeted me in Sydney that night steeled my resolve that a genuine breakthrough was needed to stop people making the dangerous journey to Australia by boat. Since then, there have been asylum-seeker boats doing it tough in rough seas. While, thankfully, we haven’t seen any more fatalities since December, another tragedy is inevitable if the boats keep coming.
Most boat arrivals in Australia pay people-smugglers about $15,000 to get here. They fly to Kuala Lumpur, then start their boat journey, first to Indonesia and on to Australia.
The logic of the Malaysian arrangement is simple. Why would you pay a substantial amount of money and risk your life only to be returned to where you began your boat journey?
It will have the same (or better) practical effect as “turning back the boats”, without all the dangers to asylum-seekers and navy crew that turn-backs on the high seas entail.
Since our commitment with Malaysia was announced, it has come in for some predictable flak from both the left and the right of this debate.
It is incumbent on those who criticise this deal to suggest an alternative that increases Australia’s role in settling refugees, while breaking the business model of the people-smugglers.
Let’s first deal with the criticism of some refugee advocates and the Australian Greens.
They complain that we shouldn’t be sending asylum-seekers to Malaysia because conditions there are poor.
To listen to this criticism, you wouldn’t know that Australia is going to resettle an extra 4000 refugees from Malaysia during the next four years.
Last year, Australia resettled 340 refugees from Malaysia. The bilateral commitment between Australia and Malaysia will increase this by almost 300%.
If the Greens and others are concerned about the situation for asylum-seekers in Malaysia, then the net transfer of 3200 from people from Malaysia to Australia should be something they welcome. If fewer people come to Australia by boat, it also means more people can be resettled from very difficult environments in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The Greens’ position implies we should care deeply about asylum-seekers who manage to get to Australia’s shores but not those who don’t have the resources or the inclination to make such a journey.
This position might have been at least partially justifiable when Australia’s approval rate for asylum-seekers who arrived by boat was high, when people who arrived by boat in Australia were almost certain to be found to be genuine refugees.
That hasn’t been the case for some time. In the first quarter of this year, 48.9 percent of final decisions on asylum-seeker claims from boat arrivals were approved.
The second biggest group of asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by boat are from Iran. Their final approval rate after appeal in the first quarter of this year was 23%.
The position of the Greens and others is that it is somehow more compassionate to encourage these people to risk their lives on boats and that these claims should be given priority over those of the 93,509 (including 18,750 children) asylum-seekers registered in Malaysia.
Criticism from the Liberal Party is equally simplistic. Smugly, they say five to one is a bad deal for Australia. Really?
During the next four years, Australia would have resettled 55,000 refugees in return for absolutely nothing, but simply because it is the right thing to do as a humanitarian nation. This government is adding 4000 to that 55,000 figure.
An increase of 7 percent in return for a regional partner helping us break the business model of people-smugglers is certainly a better deal than Tony Abbott’s promise to double the refugee intake in return for Andrew Wilkie’s vote on the floor of the House of Representatives.
I suspect opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison knows this arrangement has the potential to break the
business model of the people-smugglers. That is why he suggested an arrangement like this last November in his Lowy Institute speech. He suggested a “trade off” between nations, with transfers of asylum-seekers from Australia in return for Australia resettling more mandated refugees. Bizarrely, he suggested this deal be done with Iran, so it is hard to see how he can criticise the Malaysian agreement with a straight face.
The Liberals think their Nauru solution is a better one. Given that 67 percent of the people who were transferred offshore under the previous government who were subsequently found to be refugees were given permanent visas in Australia or New Zealand, it is hard to see how a processing centre in Nauru, absent of the agreement with Malaysia, would in any way break the people-smugglers business model. It would be another version of Christmas Island, only much farther away and more expensive to operate and maintain. Offshore processing must be combined with the Malaysian initiative if it is to have a robust deterrent effect.
Any new policy on asylum-seekers is always controversial and is almost guaranteed to meet with disapproval from many.
However, our arrangement with Malaysia presents Australia’s best chance at a sustainable solution to deal with a challenge many other countries across the world are grappling with, while sharing a greater load of our region’s mandated refugees.-by Chris Bowen