For a government phobic about “queue jumpers”, and a Prime Minister who said only a few weeks ago that the Malaysian solution would send boat arrivals to the “back of the queue,” they’ve certainly done a serious back flip today.
The 800 asylum seekers Australia is sending to Malaysia will be entitled to work, to health care and to education. None of these benefits are available to the almost 100,000 refugees already in that country, many of whom have been there for years.
Far from being sent to the back of a mythical queue, the 800 will be in a highly privileged position in the Malaysian system. Indeed, in theory they will be better off than the refugees held in indefinite mandatory detention in Australia as they will be allowed to live and work in the community while awaiting re-settlement.
There is of course no way of guaranteeing that the 800 will receive the preferential treatment both governments assure us will be afforded them. Once they are in the community they are at the mercy of a vigilante system that has demonstrated its hostility and aggression towards even those who carry the UNHCR cards that identify them as refugees. The 800 will be taking their chances on the streets, just like the other refugees. Singled out for preferential treatment, they may be even more vulnerable, and neither government has yet come up with a concrete plan to protect them.
Desperate people might well consider it’s worth the risk and get on boats anyway, especially if they believe they will be eligible for benefits like work, health care and education in Malaysia.
Even knowing that mandatory detention awaited them has not deterred asylum seekers from making the dangerous voyage to Australia: why then should they be deterred from persisting in their efforts to find a new life by the comparatively benign prospect of spending a few years in Malaysia, where they believe they’ll live a relatively normal existence while awaiting re-settlement?
The government’s efforts to “stop the boats” have today become farcical. Not that we needed one, but here’s another reason to mistrust the Gillard government’s judgement and integrity. If the 800 asylum seekers are treated badly in Malaysia, the deal will be like an albatross around the government’s neck, and place the opposition on fairly unassailable high moral ground. The “at least we know they wouldn’t be caned in Nauru,” sort of moral ground.
And if things go well for the 800 asylum seekers transported to Malaysia, there’s every reason to expect the boats will continue to arrive. After all, living in the community in Malaysia with health care, education and work sounds a whole lot better than war, terror, and persecution, or indefinite detention in an Australian hell hole far away from anywhere. Then the opposition will occupy the political high ground because “she hasn’t stopped the boats, has she and look how much it’s costing the taxpayer.”
Whichever way you look at it, there’s a strong possibility it’s going to be a lose lose situation for the Gillard government.