It didn’t take long. The ink on the refugee swap deal between Australia and Malaysia was barely dry before the first batch of boat people was re-directed to camps in Kuala Lumpur for processing.
Fifty-four asylum seekers, intercepted en-route to Australia, were denied their destination of choice as part of regional efforts to limit the people smuggling trade and the transporting of human cargo out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka to Australia’s west coast.
The trip, often undertaken in rickety and un-seaworthy vessels, has provided a lucrative business for unscrupulous traders and claimed many lives while providing conservative and left wing governments in Canberra with a nasty political headache.
Malaysia already has more than two million illegal immigrants, which it’s in the process of legalizing, and another 92,000 people already processed and recognized by the United Nations as legitimate refugees from where 4,000 people will be granted asylum in Australia.
Crowded camps and a less than flattering human rights record in Malaysia – Kuala Lumpur isn’t a signatory to the UN convention on refugees and imposes harsh punishments for illegal entry, including caning – had activists up in arms over the deal.
However, such concerns were partly eased after Australia agreed to spend the $325 million required to ensure the 800 are housed to international standards over four years. They are supposed to be placed in a transit centre for up to 45 days, where their refugee status will be processed by the UNHCR. They will then be relocated into local communities and given access to jobs, education and healthcare pending resettlement in a third country.
The Australian government has already credited the deal with substantially reducing the number of illegal arrivals at Christmas Island since it was first mooted back in May.
To drive their point home, authorities are filming the resettlement in Malaysia with the intention of screening it in ‘real time’ on YouTube, designed to frighten-off potential refugees with Australia in their sights, with two channels ‘notopeoplesmuggling’ and ‘ImmiTv’ screening 10 clips in eight languages.
An early result of the swap is that New Zealand and Canada have emerged as alternative destinations for Malaysian adverse asylum seekers. As such, some activists still insist the deal is simply another form of human trafficking, offering little more than the outsourcing of human rights violations.
However, for the 4,000 recognized refugees who will get to call Australia home after spending decades in Malaysian camps, the deal is an outright winner. Little has been written about them, most fled places like Burma and conflict ridden Southern Philippines and have been denied a home despite their status.
Having travelled through many of these camps, particularly around the northern tip of Borneo, it’s easy to see why Malaysia was happy to seal such a deal. The problems confronting Kuala Lumpur over this issue are far greater than anyone in Australia can imagine.
It might upset the human rights community, but this deal could be the start of many more to come. After all, the demand is there.