Malaysia deal guarantees more refugee misery

Signing the refugee swap deal with the Malaysian government on July 25, the Gillard Labor government has confirmed again that it is a world leader in dealing misery to refugees. The arrangement between Australia and Malaysia will exchange 800 asylum seekers who have sought asylum in Australia for 4000 refugees living in Malaysia.

The agreement is a natural progression for Labor Party policy on refugees, reflecting the thread of reactionary and racist scapegoating that both the ALP and the Coalition have historically propagated. According to Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, the deal will “break the people smugglers’ business model” and halt the flow of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by “unauthorised” means. It won’t. All the agreement will do is create greater misery for the already traumatised 800 asylum seekers, adding to the more than 80,000 “official” refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia.

The ongoing wars and foreign occupations in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere will not deter asylum seekers from attempting to reach Australia by any available means. According to visiting Afghani human rights campaigner Niamatullah Ibrahimi, more people are expected to flee Afghanistan in the coming period as the situation there deteriorates. Ibrahimi was quoted in the July 29 Australian as saying that the Malaysia deal will change little: “At the end of the day, it will not affect the causes that make people flee Afghanistan and claim asylum”.

Outsourcing human rights abuse

A statement released by the Sydney Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) on July 26 condemned the deal. According to RAC spokesperson,  Ian Rintoul: “The core purpose of this deal is to outsource our human rights violations to one of South East Asia’s most infamous rights abusers. This is a ‘groundbreaking’ new low for Australia … This Malaysian deal is nothing less than brutal people trafficking. People, perhaps including unaccompanied minors, will be abandoned to appalling privation and suffering in Malaysia. Australia is engaging in a form of collective punishment of people who have committed no crime.”

In a July 28 opinion piece on the ABC’s on-line The Drum, a refugee campaigner for Amnesty International Australia, Alex Pagliaro, questioned the government’s gloss on the deal: “The picture of Malaysia being presented by the Australian Government is in sharp contrast to the one found by Amnesty International researchers when they visited the country. Rows of refugees stared out from their barbed-wire cages, some revealing the scars on their backside from where a rattan cane had turned their flesh into pulp. A newborn baby lay on a concrete floor, and once-blue ration trays had turned grey with grime.

According to one recent study conducted by the Malaysian NGO Health Equity and Initiatives (HEI), some 70% of asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia suffer anxiety, depression and stress. The July 26 Malaysian Star quoted Dr Xavier Pereira, the director of HEI, as saying: “Both men and women are equally affected, especially those who are unemployed, involved in human trafficking and forced labour”.

Rintoul described Australia and Malaysia as “partners in crime”. “It’s not people smugglers’ business model that’s getting smashed by this deal,” he said. “It’s the 800 asylum seekers who have done nothing more than ask Australia for protection”.

Slow assessment

The deal with Malaysia comes in the midst of a series of protests by asylum seekers in detention centres across Australia. A universal complaint raised in this latest round of protest is the slow and inconsistent assessment process, adding to the dehumanising treatment they receive from immigration department officers and thuggish detention centre officials, security guards and police. RAC and other human rights organisations are concerned about the escalation of violence against asylum seekers involved in protests while in detention. At the Scherger detention centre near Weipa, around 100 asylum seekers went on a five day hunger strike, ending on July 27. A message from the  hunger strikers read “We are locked in ‘NO MAN’S LAND’ inside a military base where average people and the media have no access to us.

“Our friends and relatives cannot reach us and we have to accept the blame of officials, and the suggestion that ‘you are not looking after your case’!

“Our treatment in this way is very hideous and painful. They are melting us in a bureaucratic oven, and pushing us through cracks in the law, all the while, money-makers are making their money and we have to suffer indefinitely and infinite trauma”.

There was also a hunger strike at the Darwin detention centre and 15 asylum seekers held a roof-top protest - which was forcibly ended on July 27.

According to the Sydney RAC, on July 22, Australian Federal Police (AFP) staged early morning raids on the rooms of asylum seekers in several compounds of the detention centre on Christmas Island. Asylum seekers were beaten and some were dragged out of the compounds and placed in the so called “management unit” named Red One.

In response to the crackdown, Rintoul said: “We are extremely concerned for the safety of the asylum seekers at the hands of the Federal police. The major clashes in March were a result of the Federal police and Serco launching raids for so-called ringleaders of the protests. The victimisation of protesters did nothing to ease tensions in March; it will do nothing now.

“We have been aware for some time that Serco management have been pushing for harsher measures against protesting asylum seekers, including the use of handcuffs and padded helmets for those incarcerated in Red One.

“Rather than finding scapegoats for the failures of Serco and the Immigration Department, the government should be acting to end long term detention that has pushed the asylum seekers to the edge. If the government thinks it can beat asylum seekers into submission theyare sorely mistaken”.

For more information and updates go to refugeeaction,org.au.