Jonathan Pearlman – Straits Times
Sydney. Australia is set to reopen Pacific island detention centers to process asylum seekers as part of tough new measures to stem the flow of boat people.
In recent days, as the government moved to end a deadlock on the divisive asylum seeker issue, hundreds of boat people have tried to rush to Australia from Indonesia in a move dubbed “a closing down sale.”
The political deadlock has threatened to damage ties with Malaysia, angry at criticisms of its treatment of refugees.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Monday accepted all 22 recommendations made by an independent, government-appointed committee, including a controversial proposal to reopen processing centers on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
“Over time, a comprehensive regional framework will reduce the lure of irregular maritime migration, but until then the panel believes Australia needs to include the prospect of processing options outside of Australia,” said the three-member committee, which released its much-awaited policy review, Monday.
The move marks a dramatic turnaround for the Labor government, which has long rejected the so-called “Pacific solution” adopted a decade ago by then Liberal Prime Minister John Howard.
After winning the 2007 election, Labor sought a softer approach aimed at processing arrivals on Australian territory. But a growing influx — including three boatloads in the past week carrying more than 300 people — has put pressure on Gillard to adopt a tougher approach.
More than 100 boats carrying 7,300 people arrived in Australia this year, while more than 600 boat people have died in the past three years trying to make the crossing in unseaworthy vessels.
Besides recommending that the Pacific centers be reopened, the committee, headed by former defense chief Angus Houston, urged the government to work more closely with countries, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia, to combat people smuggling.
Its 160-page report said the government should increase its annual humanitarian refugee intake from 13,750 to 20,000 but should no longer provide immigration concessions to family members of people who arrive by boat.
It said the government should pursue its plans for a refugee swap deal with Malaysia, and called for “circuit breakers” across the region to curb people smuggling.
Air Chief Marshal Houston said that drastic action is needed and that the ongoing deaths at sea are “unacceptable.”
“Unless we do something different… the problem is just going to get worse,” he said. “We recommend a policy approach that is hard-headed, but not hard-hearted… Onshore processing encourages people to jump on boats.”
The impasse has angered Malaysia, which lashed out at criticisms about its treatment of refugees. Gillard’s push for a refugee swap deal prompted debate about whether Malaysia, which is not a signatory to the refugee convention, would handle asylum seekers properly.
In a letter to Australian MPs sent before the report’s release, Malaysia’s High Commissioner to Australia, Datuk Salman Ahmad, said the criticisms are unfair and hurt his country’s reputation.
“I am very concerned with the sustained negative portrayal of my country in the Parliament, which has extended to the media and the general public,” he wrote. “We see it as unfair that this democratic debate has been undertaken at the expense of Malaysia’s good reputation.”
Labor MP Michael Danby has supported Salman’s remarks, saying the Liberal opposition had attacked Malaysia as part of a political attack on the refugee deal.
The opposition has called for asylum seekers to be processed in Nauru and the navy to turn back boats arriving from Indonesia.
The committee said Australia should pursue the Malaysian deal but only if it is assured that the refugees would be treated humanely. It said boats should not be turned back at present but that this “could change in the future.”
Gillard said she would begin introducing laws today to implement all 22 recommendations. The committee said the annual cost would be A$1 billion ($1.05 billion).
“I am not going to play politics when too many lives have been lost,” she said.
Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times