Australia’s controversial boat people bill struck down

Text by: Sam DAVIES
4 min

Australia’s Senate on Thursday struck down an amended bill to reinstate offshore processing for asylum seekers, with political ideology trumping humanitarian concern.


When Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Thursday urged Australia’s upper house to pass the Labor-backed ‘Malaysia Solution’ bill to process refugee claims offshore, the timing was grimly pertinent.

On the eve of the debate, a second boatload of refugees in a week had capsized off the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island, adding four more deaths to the 90 people drowned days earlier.

The Senate debate around the bill was highly charged, the deaths having underlined the government’s inability to find a way to stem the tide of so-called “ boat people”, illegal migrants who pay smugglers to take them on the perilous journey from Afghanistan, Indonesia and elsewhere to Australia.

Gillard urged politicians, including from the opposition and the Greens, to “look into their conscience” to find a solution. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon was less delicate. He chastised his fellow senators for “behaving like petty pissants” for failing to give ground on their respective views to broker a deal. “The stink of compromise is better than the stench of death,” he added.

Yet there was no deal to be had. By the end of the day the bill was sunk, foundering on the lack of support from the Green Party and the conservative Coalition.

A flawed solution

The so-called Malaysia solution was a first of its kind. It provisioned for 800 asylum seekers to be sent to Malaysia to have their claim processed there. In return, Australia was to accept 4,000 registered refugees in Malaysia over the next four years.

Close to 6,000 asylum seekers who arrive by boat each year are currently processed in mainland Australia or at a centre on the island of Naura, which was opened under a previous deal struck by the conservative government of former prime minister John Howard.

Gillard’s Labor government had argued that offshore processing would act as a deterrent for smugglers in Indonesia and elsewhere to accept payment from refugees to make the perilous boat journey to Australia.

According to Dr Khalid Koser, academic dean and head of the New Issues in Security Programme at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, the solution would have been the first of its kind in the world. And for good reason.

“There is little empirical evidence that such measures would work as a deterrent to people smuggling,” he told FRANCE 24.

Refugees might still consider as low the odds that they might be among the 800 sent to Malaysia. And even that outcome might be better than the risk of continued persecution in their home countries.

Furthermore, women and children, who were excluded from the bill, would still have been targeted by the smugglers.

Politics over humanitarian concern

The debate has long been more about politics than humanitarian concern. Despite accounting for just 2.7% of the total migrant intake into Australia, boat people are cause for concern for 72% of Australians, according to opinion polls.

These “illegal boat arrivals”, as the conservative Liberal Coalition opposition refers to them, are processed onshore and considered to be “jumping the queue” of other refugees who have applied for asylum through legitimate channels and must await approval before arriving.

But reality tells a different story. In 2010-11, 11,491 people arrived in Australia seeking asylum, 5,175 of which came by boat. About 90% of them were granted visas. These arrivals are a drop in the ocean compared to the 13 million foreigners who entered the country during the same period. The vast majority of illegal immigrants in Australia are visa over-stayers who arrived by plane.

The conservative opposition has successfully used the refugee issue to hammer Julia Gillard. Languishing in the polls, she faces an uphill battle for reelection. Finding a solution to the problem would have demonstrated her capacity to take action.

After the Malaysia Solution bill was struck down in the senate by 39 votes to 29, parliament took recess for six weeks. Hours earlier, another boat carrying 100 asylum seekers was intercepted off the Australian coast.


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