I heard Ramon Navaratnam being interviewed on ABC Radio National “Asia Pacific” about the deal between Malaysia and Australia to swap refugees. I cannot believe that this man is supposed to be “a former member of the Human Rights Commission in Malaysia.” Perhaps there is a reason why he is no longer a member of the Human Rights Commission. In talking about the Memorandum of Understanding signed by Australia and Malaysia he said, “We share this Australian dream of being kind and compassionate … and [of] upholding human rights.” Obviously he has not been briefed on Australia’s immigration policy over the last few years; nor has he any inkling of its treatment of indigenous people (re: the Northern Territory Intervention Act 2007 which continues under the Gillard government). Has he not been reading the news about Malaysia’s human rights record, particularly the SUARAM Annual Reports? Compassion does not exist in the vocabulary of Australian Labour and Liberal politicians. Compassion flew out the window and landed somewhere in Nauru or Christmas Island a while ago. The new budget is a strong indication that the rational logics of neoliberal economics have no room for compassion when it comes to people who are on social welfare. “You want compassion because you have an illness that doesn’t allow you to work? Forget it! Get a job!” That’s the message.

Navaratnam unfortunately is like many close-minded short-term thinking conservatives when it comes to the issue of asylum seekers. They use the same rhetoric: differentiate between “genuine refugees” and “economic migrants.” But the truth is, it’s damn hard to separate out one category from the other in reality when circumstances do not allow someone to migrate economically. You have to have enough points and money, sufficient English proficiency and recognisable degrees to qualify in the Australian and Canadian points-system; some countries don’t have embassies for you to go and apply to leave; and some countries don’t even allow you to migrate. All these factors mean nothing for if your life is in danger, you’d just grab your passport and leave. Besides, which economic migrants would risk their lives coming to Australia in a leaky boat if they were not forced by desperate circumstances whether caused by war, nature or globalisation to flee? What’s wrong if people just want to better their circumstances? Isn’t this the sole reason for all of us non-aboriginal peoples to be in Australia today?

The other strategy is to target people smugglers and make them out to be the bad guys. However asylum seekers may not necessarily see them as exploitative; instead they might see them as providing a service when there are no other ways out. More importantly people smugglers do not work alone in this business. They rely on corrupt officials. How is the Australian government going to implement its policies in Malaysia, by trusting the (corrupt) Malaysian government to police its equally corrupt immigration officers? How can they even bust them when they cannot solve the numerous uncountable corrupt cases, the custodial deaths, the deaths in detention centres, the RELA (Malaysian Peoples Volunteer Corps) officers going around harassing not only migrant workers but UNHCR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) card-carrying refugees?

Ramon Navaratnam is a government lackey who says that calls attacking the governments for this MOU are mere “politicking” which doesn’t help the people who are being smuggled. Only a government lackey from Malaysia would see such calls for transparency and open debate as “politicking” and not part of the way democracy works – an irony as Navaratnam was once President on Transparency International – Malaysia. He obviously missed the point that the asylum seekers are not so much being exploited by the smugglers as they are going to face more trouble in detention from government institutions and petty corrupt authorities in Australia and Malaysia – two years in detention, as we saw recently with the rioters at Villawood Centre. That’s two years of your life doing nothing and on Australian taxpayers’ money when you could be quickly processed and then turned out to the community to become part of the national fabric and to contribute to the economy. That’s two years of your life not knowing what is going to happen to you. How does one make plans in limbo? How long does limbo last? No wonder there have been 5 suicide attempts in immigration detention in Australia over the last seven months. Perhaps politicians like Tony Abbott who had expressed after the Villawood rioting that “it is completely unacceptable that people seeking entrance to Australia should be acting in this way” should try sitting in a detention centre for two years and see what it’s like.