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Refugees hold signs during a protest against indefinite detention late last month in front of the Australian High Commission on Nauru
Refugees hold signs during a protest against indefinite detention late last month in front of the Australian High Commission on Nauru. Photo Supplied

The politics of immigration

Last week, when Australia made a deal with Cambodia to resettle the asylum seekers from South Pacific island of Nauru, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the refugee deal.

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was “deeply concerned”. And just like the Cambodians who protested in front of the Australian embassy, asylum seekers, known as boat people to many Australians, protested against the deal inside the detention centres. Similarly, to many human rights activists, this deal came as a surprise.

To Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott, however, these concerns have fallen onto deaf ears. In January, in a television interview, he compared his mission to stop the boats to a war and said that the asylum seekers need to go back to where they came from.

Human rights groups, however, beg to differ. The Refugee Council of Australia has said, “Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat are not acting illegally. The 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (to which Australia is a signatory) recognises that refugees have a lawful right to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive or whether they hold valid travel or identity documents.”

Before Abbott came to power, he campaigned to stop asylum-seekers coming into the country by boats; and earlier this year, when no boats arrived on Australian shores in 100 days, he celebrated and claimed it as a major victory against people-smugglers and boat people. Barely a week goes by in Australia without the “boat people” hitting the headlines. They have been criminalised for political gains by political parties in Australia. Thanks to this misinformation, many Australians can’t differentiate between asylum seekers, “boat people”, refugees and immigrants – including prominent politicians.

Another fact that the Australian government tends to leave out is that while it criminalises the asylum seekers, generally, they come from Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka. One can understand why Afghans are running away from the Taliban. A smaller number of boat people are from Pakistan and Iraq, where ISIS has become a big threat. Furthermore, the irony of the refugee deal is that the Iranian asylum seekers will find themselves in a worse country than Iran. International Human Rights Rank Indicator, a Norwegian-based human rights NGO, ranks Iran in a higher position than Cambodia. Many of the asylum seekers will be traumatised once they settle in Cambodia. Given the lack of employment opportunitiesin Cambodia, there is no doubt that these people will have a hard time finding work.

Three years ago, under former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s leadership, the Australian and Malaysian governments struck a similar deal that would have allowed transfer and resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers. Under the deal, Australia would have sent 800 unprocessed asylum seekers who land on its shores to Malaysia and in return, Australia would have accepted 4,000 already UN-certified refugees from Malaysia. According to Gillard, the purpose of the deal was to land a “blow to people-smugglers who prey on people desperate to flee from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Myanmar”, as well as to assure Australians that her government was faithfully addressing the public’s anxiety over the boat people.

However, the deal was struck down by the Australia’s High Court, which called it unlawful because Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor is it a signatory to the Convention’s 1967 Protocol. Many human rights activists pointed out that they were surprised, considering the huge difference between the two countries in human rights standards for asylum seekers, that Australia would agree to join hands with Malaysia on the refugee swap deal.

When asked what Cambodia would be given in return for the asylum seeker deal other than the aid money, Scott Morrison, minister for immigration and border protection, told the Australian Broadcasting Company “the most important thing we’re giving them is our expertise. Cambodia wants to be a country that can resettle refugees properly and they’re seeking our advice and expertise on how we can do that.” He also claimed that he doesn’t “necessarily agree with that absolute assessment, because in the seven years to 2011 the percentage of people in poverty in Cambodia has fallen from over 50 per cent to around 20 per cent”. He continued to say that Cambodia “is a country that is trying to get on its feet; this is a country that is making great progress”.

Iffat Rahman worked with the UNHCR Malaysia and received certification on international human rights law from Oxford University.

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