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Billy Tai
Billy Tai. BENNETT MURRAY Bennett Murray

Most Australians ‘rather indifferent’ to refugee deal politics

One year has passed since Interior Minister Sar Kheng and the then Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison signed a controversial deal promising Cambodia A$40 million in return for resettling asylum seekers intercepted in boats off Australia’s coast. Only four refugees – one of whom has asked to leave – are currently in Cambodia, although another group is said to be on its way. Bennett Murray spoke with human rights consultant Billy Tai, a New Zealander who has permanent residency in Australia, about the state of the deal and how it is viewed in Australia

Was former prime minister Tony Abbott’s downfall this month linked to the refugee deal?

Refugees don’t get a mention in the political discussion of Abbott’s demise.

They talk about his disastrous budget last year, they talk about the economic handling, they talk about the broken promises. I think the majority of Australians, and this is my opinion, are rather indifferent.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is votes in the ballot box. We’ve not seen a significant shift among the Australians in terms of polling – political parties are not being punished for treating refugees or asylum seekers badly.

Malcolm Turnbull, who replaced Abbot this month, said the plight of asylum seekers is a “legitimate question”. Is that a sign things may change?

Yeah, optimistically I would say it’s an indication that Turnbull is keen to eventually shift the Liberal policy away from the current stance; however, he knows that he won’t get the support if he makes any rash movement now and the boats start to flood back.

It’s a raw numbers game. I think he will let the border force officials continue to do their thing for the time being and wait out until after the election.

Maybe he will come up with a new mandate to bring to the people during the election, we’ll see.

The cynical side of me is saying that he is appeasing the moderates and the left but ultimately realises that the refugee issue doesn’t win you any votes, [and] therefore will actually not do anything about it.

What is your take on the Cambodian public’s reaction to the deal?

My main concern about the Cambodian public is that the protests that I saw last year got a little bit cynical for me. Around June, and around September, there were protests outside the [Australian] Embassy.

Fundamentally, some of the things that were being said, some of the placards that I saw, were portraying these refugees who would be arriving in Cambodia as extra burdens on Cambodia, as people who will take their share of aid money, which means Cambodians in need won’t get that money.

What I’m seeing in a way is morphing that hostility toward Vietnamese into hostility toward refugees. They were being treated in the same light.
 
Did Australian policy succeed in ‘stopping the boats’?

The government will certainly tell you they have achieved that objective.

The opposition will say they haven’t stopped the boats, they’ve merely turned the boats around and they have brought their suffering elsewhere.

I think it’s problematic that the Australian navy is utilising the strategy of intercepting boats on international waters and forcing them back to Indonesian waters.

The problem with this is that there’s no oversight to the operations that have been conducted.

The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe has been described as the continent’s worst since World War II. Does that affect Australia’s policy?

I think it’s made the right wing more staunch about what they’re doing. It certainly doesn’t help that some right wing European political leaders are praising Australia for what they’re doing.

There’s a lack of distinction between asylum seekers and economic migrants. There are people who migrate for economic reasons – they will go through extraordinary lengths, and I have sympathy for them too.

But to mix policies on migrants with policies on asylum seekers is incredibly dangerous.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity

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