Australia abandons asylum-swap deal with Malaysia

Sri Lankan asylum seekers engage in a hunger strike after their boat broke down on the way to Australia's Christmas Island, at Cilegon on October 16, 2009 in Merak, Java, Indonesia. Around 260 asylum seekers set off from Malaysia on a large cargo boat bound for Australia, each reportedly paying $15,000 for their passage, but the craft broke down after 13 days at sea and was intercepted by an Indonesian navy vessel. The asylum-seekers are refusing however to leave their boat and have launched their hunger strike in an attempt to bring international attention to their plight.


Oscar Siagian

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A day after Julian Gillard's center-left government celebrated passing controversial carbon tax laws through parliament's lower house, she was forced to dump a controversial refugee-swap deal with Malaysia for lack of support.

In what Reuters term a major policy back flip, Australia will now "process" asylum seekers on Australian soil — meaning any asylum seekers who reach soil can stay here until their case has been heard by the appropriate (Australian) authorities.

Gillard's government had drawn up legislation enabling it to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia for "processing" and accept 4,000 already "processed" refugees from Malaysia.

Publicly, their position was that a swap deal would deter would-be asylum seekers from the dangerous journey — usually by leaky, overcrowded boat, provided by Indonesian "snake-heads," or people smugglers — to Australia.

Privately, the media speculated, such a deal would help fight perceptions that Gillard's minority government was soft on asylum seekers.

No matter that the deal was ruled "invalid" by Australia's High Court in August because Malaysia has not signed the U.N. refugee convention and did not meet human rights standards stipulated in Australian law.

Nor that, as Al Jazeera reports, "the deal came under increasing criticism after it was revealed that unaccompanied children who arrived by boat would not be exempt from transfer."

Gillard persisted with the idea, vowing to put legislation to a vote in the "people's house" — parliament's House of Representatives.

However, Gillard was forced to back down Thursday when a non-aligned lawmaker with a decisive vote in the parliament — Tony Crook from the West Australian Nationals — declared his opposition.  

That left Gillard facing the prospect of pre-election humiliation, as leader of the first government in 82 years to have legislation rejected in the parliament's lower house.

The implication, according to Reuters: That it would "leave her minority government open to opposition accusations she cannot control parliament."

For the record, Crook — the dissenter — was quoted by ABC News as saying that although he believed the swap deal could discourage asylum seekers from trying to reach Australia, he had concerns about the way unaccompanied children might be treated in Malaysia.

He would, however, support amendments proposed by the Federal Opposition to the bill that would allow "offshore processing" in countries that had signed U.N. refugee conventions — like the Pacific Island of Nauru.

"The United Nations factor was a strong one for me," Crook told reporters at Parliament House.

"We're talking about a serious humanitarian issue here and clearly the Opposition, in government, had a strong position on asylum seekers and on boat people smuggling." 

In PoliticsLifestyle & BeliefDown Under.

Tagged: Asia.