The divisive asylum seeker debate that swings like a wrecking ball through Australian politics looks like it has claimed another scalp, this time it may be the Gillard government itself. The asylum seeker debate has taken another turn after yesterday’s ruling by the High Court. The landslide six to one ruling has put another nail in the coffin of the minority government.
In short, the judgment has found that Australia can’t send asylum seekers to Malaysia because of the absence of legal protection for asylum seekers within the laws of Malaysia thus contriving Australia’s own commitments under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention. Malaysia, unlike Australia, is not a signatory.
The much vaunted Malaysian solution is now in tatters and has left the government with a serious political problem with no immediate political solution at its disposal.
The core elements of the Malaysian solution included:
- 800 irregular maritime arrivals, who arrive in Australia after the date of effect of the arrangement, will be transferred to Malaysia for refugee status determination
- in return, over four years, Australia will resettle 4000 refugees already currently residing in Malaysia
- transferees will not receive any preferential treatment over asylum seekers already in Malaysia
- transferees will be provided with the opportunity to have their asylum claims considered and those in need of international protection will not be refouled
- transferees will be treated with dignity and respect and in accordance with human rights standards
It now appears that the high court ruling has placed in serious question the whole notion of off-shore processing with Prime Minister Gillard saying, “It is far from clear whether the court's ruling would, practically speaking, permit the operation of offshore processing in other locations, even in locations where offshore processing has been conducted in the past.”
If the government’s reading of the High Court’s ruling is correct, it means that the opposition’s proposal to house asylum seekers on the tiny pacific island nation of Nauru is also ruled out under Australia’s convention obligations. However, it is unlikely to prevent opposition leader Tony Abbott from taking plenty of political mileage from the decision.
Even former Labor party powerbroker and still influential commentator Graeme Richardson has said of the ruling, "This is a dagger through the heart of the government, this is a thumping in the high court. They didn't just go down: they got slaughtered. The government will look like a joke because, frankly, it is."
So it seems that the Australian political scene will continue to be dominated by the asylum seeker debate, a debate that plays to the populist, xenophobic side of Australian politics. Given that in the world of asylum seeker migration, Australia is a small player, for what should be a relatively minor issue, only 6,535 seekers arrived by boat in 2010 compared to Italy where 27000 asylum seekers have arrived so far this year.
I fear the ongoing debate will drive Australia and its politicians to take meaner, less humane approach to asylum seekers and by default continue to focus on the public’s gaze inwards. Reviving the insular cultural cringe of generations past.
Perhaps if we are so reluctant to share this continent with those from overseas then maybe the real issue should be what to do about the illegals that over stay their visa, mainly British tourists. As at 30 June 2010, it was estimated that there were about 53 900 visa over stayers residing in Australia.
But they came by plane didn’t they and they’re more like us aren’t they and so well behaved (don’t mention the UK riots).