The Malaysia solution


Dr John Stuyfbergen


This opinion was originally published in the National Times August 12, 2011.

It is a pity that many, otherwise well-reasoned articles and discussions on the transfer of refugees to Malaysia diminish their reasoning by emotive words, often inferring despicable practices of the past.

Terms such as "people trading" and deporting "little kiddies to Malaysia" slant the debate and the results before we even know whether the "Malaysian solution" (combined with the re-opening of Manus Island in Papua New Guinea) is, in the end, correct in the fair treatment of the transferred refugees and effective in crushing the people smugglers' syndicates.

In this case, an emotive argument is not very helpful, as we have a purely practical problem that needs a pragmatic solution. If we wade through all the arguments, and as the High Court deliberates a challenge to the deal, we find that the Malaysian solution is the one that needs our support.

Malaysia's home affairs minister Hishammuddin Hussein and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen during negotiations to send asylum seekers to Malaysia and accept 400 refugees from that country over four years.

Listening to some faith-based institutions it could reasonably be argued that we should welcome all asylum seekers coming to Australia and let them settle in our vast country. Many secular-thinking people could well agree with this approach. The average annual number of refugees arriving by boat is a tiny fraction of our total immigration and either seems hardly worth worrying about or they should be welcomed as a small contribution to the regional problem of refugees and displaced persons.

On the one hand that could be one option, and no ethical argument can be made that our charity and welcoming should be limited to a set number of arrivals, especially if it is such a tiny number.

On the other hand more than 50 per cent of the population, if we accept the polls, rejects the above point of view.

At the same time, Labor holds on to the Malaysian solution, the Conservatives push for the well known Nauru solution, and no one, the faith-based institutions, the secular population, the compassionate thinkers, the political parties, or the populace at large seem to be the winners in this debate.

As each of the participants scrambles to put its point of view in the best possible light, it comes as no surprise that we seem to forget that the original and fundamental aim of the Malaysian deal is to stop the boat smugglers transporting highly vulnerable and traumatised people to Australian shores.

To do nothing risks families and children perishing at sea in substandard and leaky boats. And if we think that present boat arrivals at Christmas Island can be managed because it's just a case of the odd people smuggler, we should think again.

If it isn't the case yet, it won't be long before organised crime will consider people smuggling to Australia as an excellent return on their minimal investment. At the level of money they charge each refugee, compassion does not seem to play a role. Most likely a boat disaster would be only "collateral damage".

There is a possible long-term approach to achieve a regional solution, but the only immediate solution is the Malaysia deal — sending asylum seekers back to the end of the queue in Malaysia under strict, humanitarian and transparent conditions.

It was not that long ago under former prime minister John Howard when asylum seekers were considered queue-jumpers. We all wondered where, for heaven's sake, those queues were, as we, and rightly so, couldn't imagine a queue in front of an office somewhere in Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia.

Apart from the fact that the simple word "queue-jumper" is an insult to any parent who is desperate to safeguard the life of their children, we now know that there is a queue of some 90,000 people in Malaysia who have been waiting for years to be accepted as legitimate refugees in another country. The acceptance of some 4000 of these desperate people is at least a genuine effort to assist in this problem.

Listening to the politicians talk, we notice how happily they criss-cross from one level of debate to another level, from the ethical to the emotional, from populist answers to leading opinion. They are for or against a Nauru solution, for or against the Malaysia solution, with every debate hoping to sway some voters.

In the end a government's task is to make a decision in the midst of a sharp diversity of opinions to break the nexus of the people smugglers' criminality. Let us hope that the Malaysian solution works and prevents any high-seas disasters from ever happening again.

John Stuyfbergen is a writer and former journalist. He is an academic at La Trobe University. His research covers the autobiographies of migrants and refugees.