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'Malaysian solution' shows compassion to forgotten refugees

By Lyle Shelton - posted Wednesday, 11 May 2011


The global refugee crisis is overwhelming. According to the United Nations, there are 20 million refugees displaced from their homelands mainly because of war or persecution.

Millions live in squalid conditions waiting for their claims to be processed by the hopelessly under-resourced United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

For the past five years, Australia has accepted just 13,000-14,000 refugees per year. We can do better.

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Since the Rudd Government relaxed the former Howard Government's much maligned border protection policies, around 11,000 people have paid up to $18,000 US to criminal people smugglers and risked life and limb on the ocean.

Hundreds have died unseen at sea but the danger faced by those who buy passage on a smuggler's boat was rammed home by the images of the wooden craft crashing into rocks at Christmas Island and the public grief of relatives of the deceased at the Sydney funeral this year.

Detention centres at Christmas Island and Villawood are overcrowded and burning.

While it is difficult for us to judge whether or not someone is a genuine refugee as opposed to someone seeking a better life in a prosperous and free country, the reality is that every asylum seeker who has money to pay people smugglers displaces a penniless UN-assessed refugee waiting in a camp or a slum in Malaysia.

People smugglers have been able to sell some asylum seekers a product that allows them to bypass the UNHCR for a fast track to Australia.

A long wait in an Australian detention centre is no deterrent because most know conditions are more tolerable there than in the camps or slums, notwithstanding the razor wire.

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Meanwhile one of our regional neighbours, Malaysia, has 90,000 refugees. Many of these are fleeing the brutal military junta in Burma.

Thousands of these people have already been processed by the UNHCR in Kuala Lumpur and have been found to be genuine refugees.

Four thousand of these will now have the chance for a new life in Australia that the crime of people smuggling has arguably denied many of them.

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About the Author

Lyle Shelton is Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby based in Canberra.

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