“These people, who arrive with such relief and hope after experiencing trauma in their home countries, should not be treated in this way . . . (T)he consequence of the constant political refrain that Australia is being ‘flooded’ by people who are ‘queue jumpers’ has resulted in a stigmatization of an entire group of people, irrespective of where they have come from or what dangers they may have fled.” — U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, speaking in Canberra in May
Canberra is a cold place in Australia’s winter months. It’s administrative and functional, in that way that most capital cities tend to be, but also distinctly Australian, since, all things considered, it’s still a friendly, relaxed sort of place — for government, anyway.
Now, I’m not exactly a morning person. Every time my colleagues and I drive the 3+ hours from Sydney to Canberra for some meeting that inevitably starts before 9 a.m., I spend the majority of the car ride sleeping under my coat and imagining I’m at home in bed.
But it was a fitful sleep on my first trip down to the nation’s capital in late May, because all anyone on the radio could talk about was cows. The night before, the television program “Four Corners” showed a disturbing exposé on the treatment of Australian cattle exported live to Indonesia. The report featured stomach-turning evidence of cattle being tortured and suffering prolonged deaths in Indonesian slaughterhouses. According to GetUp’s national director, over 35,000 Australians signed a petition against live exports in just five hours that morning. (Here is another news report on the issue; it contains disturbing images.)
Sitting in on the Australian House’s “Question Time” session that afternoon, I heard various House members express their dismay at animal cruelty in Indonesia. They asserted that sending animals to be processed in a country that did not uphold their same standards of animal welfare was incompatible with Australian principles. Public outcry resulted in a month-long ban on live cattle exports to Indonesia.
Exporting human beings to a country that still employs torture has not angered the public to quite the same degree, but it’s still been heavily criticized. Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s “Malaysia Solution” allows for the brokering of a human swap of sorts. The exchange would see 800 asylum seekers that reached Australia by boat deported to Malaysia. This includes children on a “case by case” basis. For its part, Australia will take 4,000 “genuine refugees” from Malaysia.
Unlike Australia, Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations’ Refugee Convention or the Convention Against Torture. It also employs caning. Concerns about the “Malaysia Solution” grew after a story broke about a young Burmese refugee in Malaysia who was blindfolded, bound and then beaten with a rattan cane last year, despite having a U.N. refugee card card meant to offer protection from persecution. Although the asylum seekers sent to Malaysia will receive legal immigration status there, Amnesty International says it will be impossible for the Australian government to ensure that no asylum seeker sent from Australia will be abused once in Malaysia .
On July 6, documents were filed in Australia’s High Court to challenge the legality of detaining people with undetermined refugee status and then deporting them to Malaysia or another third country. The case was filed on behalf of Ramazan Ahmadi, an Afghan who served as an interpreter for coalition forces. He fears persecution in his homeland for his work and now faces possible deportation to Malaysia. This is the second legal challenge to the “Malaysia Solution.” The first High Court challenge is an attempt to halt the government from permanently splitting up a refugee family who are trying to reunite.
Despite condemnation by majority vote from both houses of Parliament, the government is still able to persist with its plan, subject to the Greens’ Amendment (Declared Countries) Bill requiring parliamentary approval to send asylum seekers to another country. The rationale for sending refugees to Malaysia is that it will “stop the boats.” This is grounded in the assumption that no asylum seeker would want to be deported to Malaysia. It’s hard to imagine that the deterrent would work quite as well if Malaysia was an ideal place for asylum seekers; the disincentive is largely predicated on its notorious treatment of them.
Nonetheless, I’m not certain how effective the message will be to the men, women and children fleeing persecution in other countries. Nearly every asylum seeker I’ve met at Villawood reached Australia by boat and was originally processed on Christmas Island. They had to escape the effects of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, political persecution and torture in Iran, rape and death in the killing fields of Sri Lanka and political repression in Burma, Syria, Pakistan and China. Many have the physical scars to prove it. Desperate people willing to risk their life for a chance to ultimately save it by crossing the ocean on leaky fishing boats are not likely to be deterred by a policy not even the Parliament and Australian people want to defend.
But if I had to guess which group will come out better in the live export debates, my money’s still on the cows.