Refugee policy needs to be about more than boats & Problems face by Rohingya asylum-seekers

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By Susan Metcalfe – posted Friday, 31 December 2010..

For too many years our governments have been tying themselves in knots trying to "stop the boats" but perhaps now is the time for all sides to give up the short term political bandaids and work on finding some genuine strategies for the world’s most desperate people.

Under the Howard government’s reign asylum seekers and refugees were pushed back, pushed offshore, pushed around, pushed to the brink, and sadly, to breaking point. But as I have recently written, the Howard government’s tough intentions were shown to be unworkable when it gave up its attempts to return 83 Sri Lankan asylum seekers in 2007 because the men’s safety could not be guaranteed in Indonesia. Further documents released under FOI reveal that another attempted return in 2006 also amounted to futile and illogical posturing from the Howard government.

In August 2006, when 8 Rohingya men were dumped by Indonesian crew members on Australia’s Ashmore Island, the negotiations quickly began with the Malaysian government to force their return. The men had departed on a fishing boat from Indonesian shores but for years previously they had marked time in Malaysia, making weekly visits to UNHCR offices while they waited for a resettlement opportunity that never arrived.


Burmese Rohingyas are some of the most persecuted and oppressed people on earth but when these men entered the Australian political battlefield their suffering became as irrelevant here as it is in Burma, or in Malaysia. Some of the conditions faced by Burmese refugees in Malaysia are documented in a recent Amnesty International report which claims: "Refugees who fled torture and forced labour in Burma told Amnesty International how Malaysia (which does not recognise refugees) caned them for immigration violations, sometimes repeatedly".

The released DFAT documents reveal that in the weeks after the men’s arrival to Australia, after what seems to have been a fruitless approach to UNHCR to become involved (the deletions in the documents make it impossible to be certain of details), a direct bilateral approach to Malaysia to accept the return of the men was discussed.

One cable from Canberra on 8 September 2006 asked for the views of the Kuala Lumpur post on the "likely efficacy of a direct approach to Home Affairs Secretary General". Another "restricted" cable on 19 September 2006 formally requested the Australian post to "make an approach to the Malaysian Secretary-General on the readmission of Burmese unauthorised arrivals".

The details of the request to Malaysia are deleted from the released cables, as are so many other paragraphs that I can only wish for Wikileaks to come to our rescue. The exemption of information from these documents again gives rise to long held questions on what kind of deals are being negotiated with other countries without our knowledge and around the substance of the information that is regularly protected from our view.

By this stage the Burmese men, all UNHCR registration card carriers, had been transferred from Christmas Island to Nauru and further documents discuss the possibility of forcing the men to return to Malaysia from Nauru. An "Immigration-In-Confidence" document on 25 September 2006 states:

DIMA is currently putting in place voluntary, or, if necessary, involuntary return arrangements for the group. If involuntary return is necessary Australia will need to seek the agreement of the Government of Nauru as the group is within the jurisdiction of Nauru.


Another DFAT cable, sent to Canberra from the Kuala Lumpur post on 17 October, outlines the discussions taking place with the Malaysian Government. But the information offered seems to have been based only on loose speculation:

We indicated we were expecting the return to be voluntary. To this end we would be providing counselling to the returnees before and during the flight. However, we noted that it was possible the returnees may fail to cooperate after arrival.

How anyone could arrive at these conclusions remains unclear, particularly when a return to Malaysia had not even been raised with the men, one of whom was still in Perth receiving medical treatment. At the time, seven of the men had just spent more than a week with their legal representatives from Melbourne’s Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, detailing their persecution in both Burma and in Malaysia. Their applications for Australian visas had been lodged on 15 October, just two days earlier. One of the men said at the time:

It was always very hard living in Malaysia. I never felt safe there because I knew that at any time I could be arrested, detained and then possibly sent back to Thailand and then to Burma. There were so many times I was stopped by police but, luckily for me, the police would always accept bribes not to arrest me. Usually I would have to pay them all the money I was carrying at the time.

We do know that by early December 2006, when the men were offered a deal to return to Malaysia, the idea of forcible return had been taken off the table, although we cannot be sure why. The final toned down offer was a choice between returning to Malaysia voluntarily, to be processed by Australian officials and with no guarantee of an Australian visa if they were found to be refugees, or remaining to be processed in Nauru with resettlement to be sought in any country but Australia. But by then it was well known that other countries were averse to resettling Australia’s refugees from Nauru and the men would simply be made to wait, until they were broken in mind and spirit, before coming to Australia.

The Rohingya men made it clear that they did not feel safe to return to Malaysia. But one man did finally succumb to the offer when he could no longer bear the separation from his children, who were then facing extreme difficulty. He simply broke down under the pressure and I can still remember holding his fearful, shaking hand as we coincidentally flew out from Nauru on the same plane. His only solace was found in the surprisingly positive signals he was receiving that his application would be successful from Malaysia and from knowing that the Malaysian Government had at least promised to tell UNHCR if they decided to deport him.

But his fear of returning to Malaysia was fortunately short lived when he was processed with remarkable speed by Australian officials and flown to Australia with a permanent visa. The men remaining in Nauru were left confused, as they grappled with Australia’s illogical policies. A cable on 20 December discussed the return offer that had been made to the men as a deterrent:

In considering the options for these men the Australian Government is mindful of regional efforts to combat people smuggling and deter irregular people flows. (section removed) In this light consideration of the return of the Burmese to Malaysia was given prominence.

But the "message" transmitted from this man’s return and fast-tracked resettlement seemed at best to be murky and, if anything, was more likely to have provided an incentive for boat travel – get on a boat and we will take you to Nauru for a few months, then fly you back to Malaysia, before bringing you and your family to Australia for permanent resettlement.

The thinking behind the deal seems as warped as the back slapping that later went on when an agreement was reached to swap refugees from Nauru with Haitian and Cuban refugees in the US in 2007. When that deal had been announced the so called people smugglers assumed that resettlement in the US was imminent for the 83 Sri Lankan men in Nauru and they immediately started calling to demand their final "arrival at destination" payments. The "message" that went out then was that if you get on a boat to come to Australia you will be taken to Nauru and given a green card to reside in the US.

The Coalition has never been able to admit that its addiction to short term political fixes for boat arrivals had led it into a contorted mess of policies and actions that were ultimately ineffective and that simply toyed, cruelly, with the lives of vulnerable human beings.

We can only be grateful that the Rudd government spared us the cost of a detour flight to Malaysia when the remaining Rohingya men were finally resettled in Australia at the end of 2007. But when the politics of asylum seekers intensified earlier this year the Rudd government itself could not resist the same kind of panicked spasms that were now the familiar trademarks of the Howard era, including suspensions on processing and tough talk of rejecting applications.

All but a few on the extreme left, along with those on the right who apparently enjoy the political opportunities offered by boat arrivals, want the boats to stop coming. But history tells us that no matter how much our politicians push and shove these human beings and twist themselves into irrational actions and empty sloganeering, boat arrivals are not so easily controlled and lulls will be temporary.

For too long now Australians have been drawn, over and over, into an exchange of sensationalist barracking over the illogical and punitive policy options presented by both sides. All we talk about are the boats, while the wider problems that force people on to the seas are ignored and the vulnerable, persecuted people are pushed only into seeking out more dangerous options, if not here then somewhere else. There is little truth in much of the heated commentary that fills our media space and little that is useful for Australia.

Julia Gillard needs to lead us out of an ea of short term political reactions and offer us a broader and more courageous view that embraces the facts and the human realities and ignores the Opposition’s calls for a return to failed and illogical policies. Otherwise, it will be déjà vu all over again.

If we are so desperate to talk about refugees and asylum seekers then the debate we need to be having is about how the world’s most needy can access the protection that they need. Is that not stating the obvious? UNHCR estimates that only one in ten of the people currently needing resettlement will ever find it – so where should all the others go?

There is much that we can debate, much that Australia could contribute to seeking solutions for people stranded throughout the region, but we have to be capable of talking about much more than just the boats.

About the author: Susan Metcalfe is a writer and researcher who made many independent visits to the Nauru detention centre during the time of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution policy. She is the author of the recently published book The Pacific Solution (Australian Scholarly Publishing

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