THE High Court will today formally consider the Gillard government’s plan to send asylum-seekers to Malaysia. At the same time, many of the poor and the desperate across Asia have already considered the plan.
And many, it seems, have dismissed it. Since Australia signed the deal with Malaysia on July 25, five boats have arrived in Australian waters, carrying at least 338 asylum-seekers.
Under the scheme, which has already seen one Labor MP sidestepping party loyalty to express her concerns, Australia will resettle 4000 recognised refugees from Malaysia over four years, and in return send 800 arrivals back to Malaysia. If news spreads that an expensive and dangerous sea voyage will end not in Australia but in the crowded refugee ghettos of Malaysia, the Australian government believes potential asylum-seekers will think twice about setting sail.
And should the Malaysia plan come to grief, there is now a back-up: Papua New Guinea has agreed that a detention centre on Manus Island, closed for seven years, can be reopened.
But this plan, too, has been questioned. Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young yesterday called for an investigation to determine who would be sent to Manus Island, how much it would cost, and whether children would be detained in the centre.
“Last time Manus was open, under John Howard, for one month the bill for one lone person was $216,000,” she told the ABC. “I don’t think the minister can give the answers: [the government] is struggling to give the answers on Malaysia.”
Labor MP Anna Burke has also gone on the record to criticise the Manus Island plan. And lining up with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and prominent human rights advocates such as Frank Brennan, Burke says she fears the Malaysia deal abrogates Australia’s international responsibilities to asylum-seekers.
“I am concerned that we can’t really guarantee the safety of the 800 people,” Burke says. “That is my personal concern and I have expressed that in caucus.”
Even so, if the asylum-seekers case in the High Court fails, it’s likely the government will break records to get the first group on a plane bound for Malaysia. There are plans to film their departure and arrival and post the footage on the internet in the hope it will deter anyone considering getting on a boat destined for Australia.
Certainly, Afghans living in Kuala Lumpur have kept a close eye on the unfolding saga of the Australia-Malaysia refugee swap agreement.
Most know friends, relatives and compatriots who have attempted the journey to Australia in search of a better life, and they are aware the Australian government is trying hard to come up with a game-changer.
“They are actually well informed about it,” says Afghan Zabiullah Ahmadi, who lives in Kuala Lumpur. “It’s newspapers; it’s the people around who watch what’s going on. It’s such a small community that word can spread very quickly.”
Tahera Ahmadi and her husband Ali Haidari don’t want to risk their lives, or the life of their two-year-old daughter, Angela, on a rickety boat, but they desperately want to live in Australia. From the Hazara ethnic minority, they have lived in Kuala Lumpur for nearly four years, waiting for the magic letter inviting them to become Australians.
“Actually, I think Australia likes Hazara people,” says Ahmadi in the small flat she shares with eight members of her extended family, all recognised by the UNHCR as bona fide refugees.
“We have heard they give rights to Hazara people; they understand our problems. In Afghanistan, we don’t have any rights. If a person doesn’t have rights, this person is like a servant. I’m sure if I get to Australia I will have a nice future.”
According to Abdul Ghani bin Abdul Rahman, a leader in the Rohingya community in Malaysia, asylum-seekers have paid as much as 10,000 Malaysian ringgit (about $3200) per person for passage to Australia, a stake that has frequently entailed selling everything and borrowing from friends and family.
And this is relatively inexpensive compared with fares cited elsewhere. From Burma, the Muslim Rohingya minority is considered among the worst-treated in the world, denied citizenship by their own country.
Abdul Ghani says some people-smuggler agents in Malaysia are working with Indonesian agents, preying on the desperate.
“Many lives are lost at sea. I think this [the Australia-Malaysia scheme] is a good policy,” Ghani says. “In 2006 a friend of mine passed away because he went to Christmas Island. There are empty promises by the agents; unscrupulous agents. Many times I beg Rohingya not to do this.”
For asylum-seekers, risk, hardship and expense are the prices to be paid for a new life. A survey of Hazara men conducted in four Afghan provinces late last year showed a degree of ignorance about Australian policy.
Commissioned by Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, the Afghanistan Counter People Smuggling Scoping Study found that in all provinces, the Hazara were aware of the various risks associated with using people smugglers to travel to Australia, but “only a few Hazara realise that migrants also face a risk of repatriation and detention by the Australian authorities”.
Some of the Hazara quoted in the survey had no access to the internet, some had no electricity in their homes, and many relied mostly on news from friends and family, although the BBC, Voice of America and certain Afghan broadcasters were also trusted sources of information.
Many, living all their lives in landlocked Afghanistan, feared drowning on the way to Australia, or otherwise dying, or being imprisoned, or losing their language or culture, or being humiliated. One interview subject voiced his fears of a sea journey to Australia.
“Some people call it the dolphin’s way because many people are eaten by these dolphins in the sea.”
The survey found “information on the dangers of illegal immigration is primarily spread by word of mouth”, with news coming from returning migrants, victims of people-smuggling fraud, friends and relatives in Australia and repatriated Afghans.
Regardless of the risks of the voyage, exodus beckons. There is little to keep potential asylum-seekers in Afghanistan, with economic stagnation, a critical shortage of government services and frequent discrimination pushing the Hazara people to look for a way out.
Many asylum-seekers in Malaysia took note of the announcement of the Australia-Malaysia plan in early May, but then, as the weeks passed, doubts began to surface regarding the final shape of the agreement. Hundreds of asylum-seekers in Asia apparently believed the failure to come up with a concrete plan presented a window of opportunity, and they arrived in Australian waters by the boatload.
Then, in late July, the plan was finalised, and officially signed. And still the boats kept coming — five since the deal was signed, carrying nearly half the number of asylum-seekers Malaysia has agreed to take.
Many have been unaccompanied minors and, although Immigration Minister Chris Bowen declares there will be no blanket exemptions for unaccompanied under-18s, it’s unlikely Australia will risk international opprobrium by sending these more vulnerable people to an uncertain future in Malaysia.
Many critics of the plan note that Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, that in general, refugees and asylum-seekers are not permitted to work in Malaysia, nor to send their children to government schools, they are subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, and at the extreme, brutally caned. The Australia-Malaysia plan has specific provisos to permit the 800 transferred to Malaysia to work, and to ensure they will not be caned.
But still the critics are not convinced. The opposition has slammed both the Malaysia deal and the recent PNG agreement, noting the dearth of detail.
Hanson-Young says the government should go back to the drawing board. “This is a mess. I don’t think the government is winning any favours from anyone on this, and the solutions put forth by the opposition aren’t cutting through either.”
And she is particularly concerned about the children involved. “Why are we treating children like pawns in this awful human chess game?”
So far this year, 37 boats have arrived in Australian waters, carrying 2186 asylum-seekers. Afghans, like last year, loomed large: discounting the most recent boat, the totals comprise 892 Iranians, 604 Afghans, 129 Iraqis, as well as “other”. It’s not a huge number of people, in the global scheme of things, when millions of displaced Afghans languish in Iran and Pakistan, but asylum-seekers punch well above their weight in the Australian political arena.
Despite the clamour, numbers of arrivals have actually fallen this year, perhaps because of the mooted Malaysia plan.
Last year 134 boats arrived in Australian waters, carrying 6535 asylum-seekers, more than three times this year’s total so far. But over the past few years there has been a steady increase.
Bowen has pinned his hopes on the swap plan, which he insists will “break” the people-smugglers’ business model and prevent asylum-seekers risking their lives on often unseaworthy boats.
The Christmas Island boat tragedy last year has failed to dissuade asylum-seekers, although it seems they know that drowning is one of the risks.
When, or perhaps if, the first asylum-seekers eventually get to Malaysia, they will be taken to Port Dickson, on the coast south of Kuala Lumpur, where two basic hotels have been leased and renovated to provide temporary housing. It is expected they will remain in this accommodation for a short period, perhaps 45 days, before they are sent out into the community to lead their own lives.
Afghan advocate Zabiullah Ahmadi says the plan will create a two-tier system, with some asylum-seekers in Malaysia holding what he calls a “golden card” giving them some security.
But, he says, there is remarkably little envy from the refugees who have been living in Malaysia for so long. “At some point they are happy,” he says.