Key visit coincides with historic decision on refugee law for Australia
John Key's address to the Australian parliament today coincided with major negotiations that are going on between the Australian and Malaysian governments in what is controversially known as 'the Malaysia Solution', which is expected to be announced in the next couple of days.
While Australian governments are fond of calling everything 'solutions' to do with immigration - cf the Pacific Solution - ironically the term actually comes from Britain at the height of its Empire in the 1870s, when British politicians saw shipping convicts off to Australia as a way to relieve overpopulation in the mother country.
Today the term is used to refer to a particularly problematic vein of Australian policies that aims to deal with immigration by boat people by placing these people into mandatory detention. Plagued by news images that reach international media of immigrants in these detention centres sewing their lips and eyes together in protest, engaging in hunger strikes, reports of small children repetitively bashing their heads against the wall and riots, the Australian government has decided to conveniently circumvent international refugee law by finding a Pacific country to take the boat people off their hands. After all, this was the solution when the Tampa rescued refugees off the coast of Australia in 2001. The Howard government initially broke international law by refusing them the ability to land even though they were the closest port, then sent in military commandos onto the boat, then eventually moved them to the poor Pacific nation of Nauru, where they lived in caged compounds, some of them for years. Many of them eventually had to have treatment for mental issues caused by their confinement.
New Zealand took 150 of these refugees.
Nauru has now signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and is now unable to be used as a refugee port for Australia. Under Gillard's command, Australia has been negotiating first with East Timor, a country with abysmal human rights records, before setting its sights on Malaysia, which has not signed the Refugee Convention. As this report from The Australian states:
Malaysia's immigration detention centres have been roundly criticised for years and Amnesty International has been particularly exercised about the tendency of Malaysian authorities to cane asylum-seekers, a long and agonising beating that rips into the flesh and leaves scars.
In March this year, Amnesty noted that the Malaysian government has said as many as 30,000 foreigners have been caned between 2005 and last year.
Across Malaysia, government officials regularly tear into prisoners with rattan canes delivered at up to 160km/h, according to an Amnesty report last year.
"The cane shreds the victim's naked skin, turns the fatty tissue into pulp and leaves permanent scars that extend all the way to muscle fibres."
Key earlier this year expressed his interest in New Zealand participating in the Australian detention centres. This is a prospect that is fundamentally problematic - we will circumvent the international treaties that we are party to in order to send refugees to a country that is not party to the United Nations conventions we have ratified.
This is a move that in Australia has seen condemnation from the UN High Commission for Refugees, who felt that the country needed to look at alternatives to detention. In response to a lack of support from the opposition Labor, it is clear that Gillard needs to lobby, so she has said she is awaiting the support of the UNHCR.
Australia does face a rise in boat people. But overall, they currently receive 1% of the current global refugee population due to their geographical distance. Refugees are not people who willingly choose to break the law, they are people who are unable due to persecution to live in their current state. The Refugee Convention was brought in following World War II in order to deal with displaced people. World War II was a world wide horror and one that once it culminated, got many people to think about what it means to be human, and the atrocities that one can commit without even realizing.
It does not take much to see that the results of the current process are not ideal; rather it results in the long detention of refugees, a large number of which have been children, leading to international debate over the human rights legalities and a long time rehabilitating. The Pacific Solution was a failure whatever way you look at it.
Let's hope that our negotiations with "the country that we are committed to above all others for the rest of time" does not extend to burdening our shoulders with dubious human rights policies.