There is much to celebrate between Australia and Malaysia; relations have been good between the two nations. The days of Mahathir’s vitriolic spats are over and closer co-operation between Canberra and Putrajaya continues to offer opportunities for trade and the education sector.
Closer co-operation, however, is most important for Australia’s border protection efforts, especially in curbing people smuggling through Southeast Asia, much of which transits through Malaysia. In this vein Canberra has maintained a close relationship with Malaysia’s police and customs agencies in an effort to stop not just people smugglers, but also asylum seekers.
Travellers destined for Australia who pass through Kuala Lumpur already routinely have their passports checked by Malaysian officials as well as Australian federal police at their departure gates. Canberra wishes to stop potential asylum seekers before they reach Australian soil. Thus, Kuala Lumpur International Airport has become part of an ever widening zone of extended border security that stretches through Southeast Asia and Melanesia to secure Australia from those seeking its protection.
That makes Malaysia an important ally for Australia, which has, for all intents and purposes, given up selling its East Timor processing centre to the region. Najib himself had expressed only careful support and presented himself as a co-operative force in the region for Australia.
With the deal announced this weekend by both Malaysia and Australia simultaneously Malaysia becomes the frontline partner in Australia’s and the region’s refugee crisis.
The agreement gives the Gillard government a political edge domestically as it directly addresses the Australian public’s wariness of the boats and people smugglers.
To address boat people, the government has long promised a humanitarian and regional solution that would deter people-smuggling and keep the boats at bay. Through the Bali Process Australia has built an alliance of partners to deter irregular movements of people throughout the region. Indonesia was the latest partner to pass new legislation to curb people smuggling by imposing high fines and harsh punishments. Malaysia had done so in 2007 with its Anti-Trafficking in Persons (ATIP) Act 2007.
These laws have not had the desired impacts, in fact, more policing only makes life harsher for the thousands of asylum seekers trapped in limbo in Indonesia and Malaysia. To further complicate things, Malaysia is neither a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees nor the 1967 Protocol; it simply does not recognise refugees and for the past several years has not funded the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) working in Malaysia.
Indeed, the UNHCR has a difficult job in a country that does not legally recognise refugees. Its efforts are curtailed by capacity issues and fewer than half of the asylum seekers in Malaysia are thought to have entered the processing system of the UNHCR.
In terms of the proposed agreement, Gillard and Bowen were adamant that their scheme would make the product sold by people-smugglers, ‘freedom’, a bad deal, as intercepted asylum seekers on boats would be flown right back to Malaysia and enter the ‘end of the queue’.
Malaysia surely would not like to see itself as the end of the queue, for that would suggest that there exists a queue and that Malaysia and Indonesia are it. This ignores the majority of refugees in refugee camps in or surrounding conflict areas.
Moreover, many questions remain. What will happen to asylum seekers who are sent to Malaysia? Gillard said they will not have special treatment for processing. However, considering that approximately 100,000 asylum seekers in Malaysia have not been processed by the UNHCR, what is to be done?
Many of those not processed are too poor to access the only UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur, others do not have the relevant information available to them. UNHCR sometimes does field visits to process people in outlying areas, but again, many lack access. Access costs money and Australia may have to respond to this inequality when it seeks a fair treatment for its intercepted asylum seekers.
Already the rationale of swapping 800 unprocessed asylum seekers for 4000 registered refugees has been criticised by the opposition leader. Indeed, while the increase in the humanitarian intake is to be applauded this new agreement may join the growing list of failed regional solutions.
In any case, it will sadly not be down to what Gillard called a potential boat person’s ‘rational human decision’ to not pay people smugglers if they face being sent to Malaysia. Desperation of many of those who have lived in Malaysia for up to twenty years trumps rationality.
Dr. Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a research fellow with La Trobe University’s Institute for Human Security and a co-founder of the Melbourne Free University Project (www.melbournefreeuniversity.org). He has just published Modern Muslim Identities with NIAS Press.