Out of sight, out of mind in Malaysia


By Paul Maley, The Australian

THOSE who insist there is no such thing as a queue of asylum-seekers, waiting patiently overseas while others charge ahead by boat to secure one of Australia’s precious refugee visas, should pay a visit to Mohammad Isaq.

Isaq is one of the 490 recognised Afghan refugees living in Malaysia. He and his friends can be found in the backblocks of Kuala Lumpur, in Ampang, one of the city’s older suburbs.

Isaq is one of the army of illegal workers who fuel Malaysia’s black economy. Malaysia makes no distinction between people in the country to claim asylum and those who are there to work. To the government, they’re all illegal.

It is a wretched status, one that leaves the bearer prone to any number of official predations: arrest, detention, caning.

There are other menaces, too.

Afghans who dodge the police or the feared Rela Corp, the citizens’ militia that polices Malaysia’s labour market, are subject to regular exploitation in the workforce, often by Iranians, many of whom run local businesses.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” says Jeanette Chan, head teacher at the Hilla Community Centre, one of only two community schools catering to Afghan refugees. “They’re not supposed to work anyway.”

When Focus visited KL last week for the signing of the Gillard government’s refugee swap, word of the deal was filtering through Malaysia’s 94,000-strong refugee community.

Overwhelmingly, the sentiment was positive, particularly among Burmese, who make up most of Malaysia’s refugees. It is the Burmese who can expect to be awarded most of the 4000 protection visas Australia has committed to as its part of the deal, although Isaq and his friends had something to say about that.

“This is what we worry [about],” says Abdullah Ahmadi, who sat with Isaq and his friend Sayed Yousef in their modest apartment in KL. “Whether we have any seats in those 4000. This is what we request from the Australian government.”

Asked what the 800 transferees could expect of their new life in KL, Isaq misunderstands the question but offers a revealing answer in return.

“We expect the 800 to get here to wait in order and wait in turn for resettlement,” he says of the obligations that, in his mind, will apply to the new arrivals. It is Isaq’s use of the word “turn” that strikes. It implies a process that is ordered, sequential and fair.

While some in the refugee lobby regard the idea of a queue as nothing more than fiction, to Isaq and his friends it is an everyday reality, one that must be patiently endured before real life can begin.

“In a way, the Australian government itself is endorsing human trafficking,” says Ahmadi Zabi, 22, an urbane Afghan refugee who arrived in Malaysia in 2008. “I’ve been here for years and I haven’t been resettled. But people who take boats, people say, ‘Oh, they’re real refugees. They risk their lives.’ “

For all the hand-wringing that has accompanied Australia’s decade-long debate about asylum-seekers, the root of the problem is simple: the Rudd government reconfigured the refugee program to offer greater advantages to people who arrived by boat and imposed huge penalties on those who applied offshore.

Boatpeople are likelier to have their refugee claims upheld, wait months rather than years for permanent visas and have more or less unfettered access to the courts, allowing them to litigate their way into Australia should their claims fail.

By contrast, people who apply offshore – such as Isaq – have access to just two UN High Commissioner for Refugees case officers, one to assess the initial refugee claim and another to review it. Failure means the end of the road. Obtaining refugee status can take years. Once obtained, nothing changes anyway. Refugees must wait many years for resettlement.

Nobody knows this better than Isaq and his friends. They all have stories of friends or relatives who have ventured to Australia by boat and received in a few months what they have waited years for.

This is one of the virtues of the Gillard government’s Malaysia Solution: if applied rigorously it will help restore the fairness that was lost to Australia’s humanitarian program once refugees began self-selecting in late 2008.

The plight of the world’s 10.4 million refugees is not interchangeably dreadful. Some are needier than others. Would anyone really argue with the proposition that Australia’s refugee program should prioritise those most at risk?

Asylum-seekers transferred to Malaysia will be returned to the mix. They will be made to wait in the queue and protected from persecution while they do so.

At least that’s the theory.

A second advantage is that the Malaysia Solution resolves the problem of what to do with asylum-seekers once they have been removed from Australia.

Although some would say the refugee debate has divided Australia, in fact there is more common ground than before.

Offshore processing of asylum-seekers is now settled policy among the main parties. After 235 boats and 11,325 asylum-seekers, Labor has belatedly discovered that refugee selection should occur as far from Australia’s borders as possible. Once asylum-seekers arrive, your options are greatly limited. Not only do the courts become involved but the practical difficulties of returning failed asylum-seekers to the broken and dangerous countries from which they’ve fled mean most, including the bogus ones, end up staying put.

The refugee lobby may not be willing to accept it yet, but the mainstream debate is now about how to process asylum-seekers offshore, and where.

Labor is quite right when it says most refugees processed on Nauru ended up in Australia. What it fails to mention, of course, is that nobody knew that at the time. Perception matters as much as reality in refugee policy, and the perception during the Howard years was that Nauru was the last station on the line.

So far the opposition has been unable to say what it would do with asylum-seekers processed a second time on Nauru, leaving it open to the charge that some, if not most, would eventually end up in Australia.

That would rob Nauru of its deterrent value, a point not lost on Scott Morrison, the Coalition’s immigration spokesman. Indeed, some in government think Nauru is a confidence trick that will not work twice.

So will Malaysia work? Early signs are not encouraging. The implementation of the agreement has been ham-fisted and some of the government’s toughest rhetoric has already proved to be hollow. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has backed down on his promise to transfer overseas the 560 asylum-seekers intercepted after the deal was announced but before it became effective.

The mismatch between the message and the reality will not have been lost on the smugglers. Indeed, there is already evidence the market is ready to call the government’s bluff. On Tuesday The Australian reported smugglers were exploiting the exemptions Bowen is expected to offer the more vulnerable asylum-seekers. The first boat to arrive since the deal was announced would seem to bear that out. It was packed with 19 people who were, or claimed to be, children.

What does Bowen do? He can deport them all and, in so doing, send a powerful signal to the smugglers that Australia means business. But he is unlikely to do that. No minister could in good conscience deport highly vulnerable asylum-seekers to Malaysia, and Bowen, the father of young children, is a conscionable man.

Besides, the UNHCR probably wouldn’t wear it. The government has spent three months verballing the UN, heavily implying it is a partner to the agreement, when in fact it dislikes the idea intensely. As a result, the relationship between the two is testy.

If the UNHCR walks, Bowen loses the political cover needed to allow the Left to publicly support an idea it privately regards as morally odious. So Bowen will offer exemptions.

He will also run out of places. The Malaysia deal allows for a quota of just 800. After that, Bowen’s out of options. The government had been hoping to augment its Malaysia plan with a processing centre on Papua New Guinea. But the chaos of PNG politics means that is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Presumably, Bowen will go back to the region, to Solomon Islands, or Tonga, or some other benighted place that sees a refugee centre fully underwritten by the Australian government as a welcome cash cow. Perhaps he will even go back to Nauru.

But in so doing he will be belling the cat on another of his government’s falsehoods: that the hodge-podge of agreements and communiques it has cobbled together represents some sort of “regional solution” to Australia’s asylum woes.

Bowen repeated this line last week. “One country alone trying to make its regime more punitive, harsher, offshore detention doesn’t make the difference that you require,” he told Sky News. “I think a regional solution, which is what we said very clearly before the last election, was the sustainable way forward, is what we’ve delivered on.”

This is guff. There is no regional solution. What Bowen has delivered is a bilateral agreement between two states.

There is nothing wrong with that, of course. But to trick it up as something grander, simply to differentiate yourself from your political opponents, is spin. And we’ve all had enough of that.