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Refugee policy needs to be about more than boats

By Susan Metcalfe - posted Friday, 31 December 2010

For too many years our governments have been tying themselves in knots trying to "stop the boats" but perhaps now is the time for all sides to give up the short term political bandaids and work on finding some genuine strategies for the world’s most desperate people.

Under the Howard government’s reign asylum seekers and refugees were pushed back, pushed offshore, pushed around, pushed to the brink, and sadly, to breaking point. But as I have recently written, the Howard government’s tough intentions were shown to be unworkable when it gave up its attempts to return 83 Sri Lankan asylum seekers in 2007 because the men’s safety could not be guaranteed in Indonesia. Further documents released under FOI reveal that another attempted return in 2006 also amounted to futile and illogical posturing from the Howard government.

In August 2006, when 8 Rohingya men were dumped by Indonesian crew members on Australia’s Ashmore Island, the negotiations quickly began with the Malaysian government to force their return. The men had departed on a fishing boat from Indonesian shores but for years previously they had marked time in Malaysia, making weekly visits to UNHCR offices while they waited for a resettlement opportunity that never arrived.


Burmese Rohingyas are some of the most persecuted and oppressed people on earth  but when these men entered the Australian political battlefield their suffering became as irrelevant here as it is in Burma, or in Malaysia. Some of the conditions faced by Burmese refugees in Malaysia are documented in a recent Amnesty International report which claims: "Refugees who fled torture and forced labour in Burma told Amnesty International how Malaysia (which does not recognise refugees) caned them for immigration violations, sometimes repeatedly".

The released DFAT documents reveal that in the weeks after the men’s arrival to Australia, after what seems to have been a fruitless approach to UNHCR to become involved (the deletions in the documents make it impossible to be certain of details), a direct bilateral approach to Malaysia to accept the return of the men was discussed.

One cable from Canberra on 8 September 2006 asked for the views of the Kuala Lumpur post on the "likely efficacy of a direct approach to Home Affairs Secretary General". Another "restricted" cable on 19 September 2006 formally requested the Australian post to "make an approach to the Malaysian Secretary-General on the readmission of Burmese unauthorised arrivals".

The details of the request to Malaysia are deleted from the released cables, as are so many other paragraphs that I can only wish for Wikileaks to come to our rescue. The exemption of information from these documents again gives rise to long held questions on what kind of deals are being negotiated with other countries without our knowledge and around the substance of the information that is regularly protected from our view.

By this stage the Burmese men, all UNHCR registration card carriers, had been transferred from Christmas Island to Nauru and further documents discuss the possibility of forcing the men to return to Malaysia from Nauru. An "Immigration-In-Confidence" document on 25 September 2006 states:

DIMA is currently putting in place voluntary, or, if necessary, involuntary return arrangements for the group. If involuntary return is necessary Australia will need to seek the agreement of the Government of Nauru as the group is within the jurisdiction of Nauru.


Another DFAT cable, sent to Canberra from the Kuala Lumpur post on 17 October, outlines the discussions taking place with the Malaysian Government. But the information offered seems to have been based only on loose speculation:

We indicated we were expecting the return to be voluntary. To this end we would be providing counselling to the returnees before and during the flight. However, we noted that it was possible the returnees may fail to cooperate after arrival.

How anyone could arrive at these conclusions remains unclear, particularly when a return to Malaysia had not even been raised with the men, one of whom was still in Perth receiving medical treatment. At the time, seven of the men had just spent more than a week with their legal representatives from Melbourne’s Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, detailing their persecution in both Burma and in Malaysia. Their applications for Australian visas had been lodged on 15 October, just two days earlier. One of the men said at the time:

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About the Author

Susan Metcalfe is a writer and researcher who made many independent visits to the Nauru detention centre during the time of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution policy. She is the author of the recently published book The Pacific Solution (Australian Scholarly Publishing

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