Khamis, 31 Mei 2012

Why Does Australia Want to Send Refugees to Malaysia?

Between 2003 and 2004, Marion Le, a Canberra-based lawyer, made regular trips to the remote island of Nauru in the South Pacific. But she wasn't going for a beach holiday. At the time, Nauru was part of the so-called Pacific Solution, Australia's policy of processing and detaining asylum seekers arriving by boat in offshore detention facilities.

From 2001 to 2007, thousands of asylum seekers were in offshore detention centers while Australian immigration officials decided their fate. Le, who helped many migrants file successful asylum claims to Australia, was among the Pacific Solution's many critics in Australia and abroad, saying the system was both a human rights violation and a breach of international law. After former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd came into office in 2007 and closed the centers on Nauru, Papua New Guinea's Manus Island and the Australian territory of Christmas Island, Le recalls feeling "relief" that the government was finally listening to the plight of those that had been confined.

So it's something of a surprise that today, Le wants to have the facility in Nauru reopened. "It's the better of the two evils," she says. The second "evil" that Le is referring to has been nicknamed the Malaysian Solution. It's the latest plan by the Australian government to deter its longtime problem of "irregular maritime arrivals," and to stop the business of the people smugglers who get them here. The proposal, tabled by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in early May, mandates that asylum seekers arriving to Australia by boat will no longer be taken to Christmas Island, where they have access to getting an Australian visa. Instead, the first 800 asylum seekers will be sent to Malaysia — "to the back of the queue," as Gillard puts it. In turn, Australia will give a permanent home to 4,000 mainly Burmese refugees over a period of four years who are now residing in or near the Malaysian capital. "Now [the governments] are just people trading," says Le. "What they are suggesting is deplorable."

Since May 7, when the Malaysia Solution was announced, there have been more than 274 people who have arrived to Australia by boat. For the moment, they are in limbo on a detention center in Christmas Island. A formal deal between Canberra and Kuala Lumpur is close to being, signed according to Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, though it has not been announced where the affected migrants will be processed. Bowen told ABC Radio on June 9 that they will be processed in a third country.

So far, Malaysia is the closest the Australian government has come to establishing a regional deal. But it's not the first. Gillard had hopes for building a detention center in East Timor, but President Jose Ramos-Horta told journalists on April 29 that this is not an option. There have also been talks with Papua New Guinea about reopening the facilities at Manus Island, and Thailand has reportedly expressed interest in participating in a similar scheme to Malaysia. Critics are concerned about the seemingly arbitrary nature of the location for offshore solutions. "I feel like Gillard is just throwing darts around the Pacific Ocean and hoping one sticks somewhere," says Le.

Malaysia, unlike Australia, is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, and therefore does not have special national laws that recognize refugees, fleeing their homes for fear of persecution, have different rights than illegal immigrants. "We have a country like Australia that has signed the Convention sending people to a country that hasn't signed the Convention, and where we know refugee protection is deeply problematic," says Graham Thom, a spokesperson for Amnesty International, which expressed concern over the agreement in a press release on May 8. The statement quoted a 2010 report by Amnesty which found that 6,000 refugees in Malaysia are caned annually for immigration-related offences, such as working, which is not legal for refugees in that nation. Bowen has since said that the 800 refugees coming from Australia will be issued with identity tags that should safeguard them against caning.

But particularly controversial has been the new policy's treatment of children. Bowen told the Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that unaccompanied children arriving to Australia by boat will not be exempt from being sent away. "I don't want children getting on boats to come to Australia thinking or knowing that there is some sort of exemption in place," Bowen told the news service. His said his concern was that parents would send their children alone on the perilous journey to Australia by boat.
Human-rights groups immediately condemned the new condition. "We think that what the government is doing is morally reprehensible," says Norman Gillespie, the chief executive UNICEF AUSTRALIA. "These are children. When they come seeking asylum in Australia the minister is obligated to help them." On June 4, 14 Labor Party MPs from Western Australia also signed an open letter voicing their disapproval of the Malaysia Solution. Two days later, Bowen backpedaled, saying that the fate of children arriving to Australia would be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Most Australians are unconvinced. A June 2 Galaxy research poll conducted by the Daily Telegraph showed that 66% of voters are against sending asylum seekers to Malaysia — and that was before Bowen's unpopular announcement regarding children. "It's a quick political fix to stop boats coming, rather than a genuine attempt to develop a regional coordinated framework," says David Manne, executive director of
Melbourne's Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre.

Since the new year, pressure has been mounting on the Australian government to find a new offshore solution for Australian-bound refugees. Currently, all migrants and asylum seekers who reach Australia by boat are first taken to Christmas Island, which, while technically part of Australia, is only 220 miles south of Jakarta. As that facility filled up, detention centers have now reopened on the mainland. On Dec. 15, a boat carrying 90 asylum seekers sank near Christmas Island killing between 30 and 50 people. A coronial inquest into the incident is being held. Scott Morrison, the opposition's immigration spokesman, has said that Gillard's Labor Party has "blood on their hands" for having a policy in place that encourages refugees to enter the country. Like many nations that recognize refugees, Australia grants permanent residence to asylum seekers if their application is successful. The opposition parties think the Malaysian option will be costly, as Australia will be taking five times more refugees than Malaysia in the trade. Opposition leader Tony Abbott also believes that this option will be ineffective, that Malaysia will become the new back door for people seeking to come to Australia.

In April, asylum-seeker detainees set fire to several buildings in Villawood Detention Center in western Sydney, as part of a protest after two asylum-seekers had their refugee-status applications rejected. On June 9, a riot involving 100 refugees also broke out there after one detainee was isolated in the compound. Morrison interprets the protests as symptoms of a system that's out of control: "With an average of more than three critical incidents being reported every day in the detention network, ranging from self-harm and serious assaults to riots, fires and even deaths, the Government must now be held to account for the daily failures now occurring in our detention system," he told the ABC on May 22.

Now refugee advocates like Le find themselves making the same appeal to Gillard's government as the opposition, which is also urging the government to re-open the detention centre in Nauru. Abbott and Morrison were both in Nauru over the weekend, and said that the center could be up and running in a matter of weeks. At least at Nauru, Abbott said in a recent speech, the government could guarantee that no illegal arrival would suffer physical abuse: "We could hardly expect Malaysia to maintain two regimes for illegal arrivals: a superior one for those coming via Australia and an inferior one for everyone else."

Rabu, 30 Mei 2012

Democracy and Its Enemies

In the coming year the people who run the world will change—and so could the ideas, predicts John Micklethwait

Politics always operates at two levels. There is the immediate, pragmatic level of the struggle for power: which party wins an election, who becomes prime minister, dictator or king. But there is also the underlying struggle of ideas: the battle between left and right, between liberalism and autocracy. Occasionally, these two sorts of politics coincide dramatically—as in France in 1789, Russia in 1917, eastern Europe in 1989 and arguably the Arab world in 2011. More often, though, the faces change more quickly than the theories, especially in democracies, and the pattern is obvious only in retrospect. Few Britons realised how important Margaret Thatcher would be when they elected her in 1979; even fewer Americans spotted the arrival of a new brand of conservatism in Barry Goldwater’s humiliating defeat in the 1964 presidential election.

From this perspective, predicting that any year will come to be seen as a political landmark is a mug’s game. But 2012 stands a good chance of being pivotal, both in terms of people and a clash of ideas.
Among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Britain’s David Cameron is the only leader who seems (more or less) certain of still being fully in power at the end of the year. Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy face presidential elections which they may well lose. Dmitry Medvedev has already ceded the Russian presidency back to Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile in China Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are due to prepare the handover in early 2013 of the presidency and the prime ministership to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang; altogether some 70% of China’s leadership is expected to change.
Look at the current odds and the narrow probability is that the Security Council personnel will not change that much. Messrs Obama and Sarkozy could scrape home against less-than-inspiring challengers; Mr Xi is unlikely to change much from Mr Hu; and Mr Putin has been running Russia anyway. But the possibilities of dramatic change are there. By early 2013 America could be ruled by President Rick Perry, France by President Marine Le Pen and Mr Cameron’s coalition could have fallen apart. There is no guarantee that the changes of power in China and Russia will not turn fratricidal: the seamless way in which Mr Medvedev and Mr Hu took over their presidencies in 2008 and 2003 were after all the exceptions, rather than the rule. And beyond the big powers, from Venezuela to Taiwan, shifts at the top that could have wider repercussions are
also on the cards in 2012 (see map).

There is, in short, a lot to play for—and even more so once you consider the battle for ideas. In the 1990s, with the Soviet Union vanquished, it was fashionable to talk about the end of history, and the inevitable triumph of Western liberalism, both economic and political. But the past decade has been more difficult for those, such as The Economist, who wanted a freer, more open world. September 11th 2001 was a shocking, bloody reminder that a violent minority had always dissented from the West’s creed of liberal democracy. More recently, the West’s financial crisis has raised doubts about the worth of liberal capitalism, just as the continuing rise of undemocratic China has advertised the supposed strengths of one-party efficiency.

Nowadays, authoritarian regimes in the emerging world have plenty of excuses for ignoring Westerners lecturing them about privatisation and human rights. Asian autocrats are once again talking about Asian values being different. And, in private at least, some Western business leaders agree: fed up with the partisan gridlock in Washington, DC, or the dysfunction of the euro zone, chief executives swoon about the swift decision-making in Beijing, the rapid permission given for their new factory, the road built speedily to their new software centre.

In 2012 ideas of all sorts are likely to clash still more vividly. In the West real politics will return with a vengeance, as deficits are cut and hard choices have to be made. The coming elections, rather than being about “sharing the proceeds of growth” (as Mr Cameron described politics in sunnier times), will be about dividing up the pain. Some extreme positions are being marked out, with for instance America’s Republicans rejecting any new taxes. The left will hammer away at bankers, the right at bureaucrats.

This struggle could be cathartic. It could force many Western countries to reform public sectors which have accounted for ever more of their economies and delivered lousy services. Liberalising product and labour markets in Europe would pave the way for the economic growth the continent needs if it is to emerge from its crisis. America could finally agree to shrink its deficit, get rid of gerrymandering and deal with money politics.

But the battle of ideas in the West could also turn nasty. The mayhem on the streets of London and Athens in 2011 might be a harbinger of what comes ahead. Previous periods of economic distress—notably the 1930s—do not augur well. Immigrants and foreigners, beware.

All the tea parties in China
However, Western democracies are not the only states under attack; so are the autocracies. The Arab spring undermined the idea that some people don’t want democracy. Average incomes in some parts of China are rising to the level at which the South Koreans and Taiwanese demanded greater freedom. China’s government may be good at building infrastructure, but it is still lousy at supplying basic services like health and education, especially to migrant workers, and its underpinnings are weak: around 40% of the money for local government comes from land sales. Mr Xi is probably much more aware of these deficiencies than his Western admirers: it is a tough inheritance. As for Mr Putin, voters’ current tolerance for the Kremlin’s robber friends may be more tied to the oil price than to his policies.

A battle of ideas is under way. The best arguments remain with liberalism, especially in the emerging world. From Shanghai to Mumbai and São Paulo, governments that removed economic restrictions have made their citizens richer. But militarism, xenophobia and protectionism will remain beguiling options for any politician under pressure. It could be a rocky year.

John Micklethwait: editor-in-chief, The Economist

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