Four legs good, two legs bad: The ‘Malaysia Solution’ and the live refugee trade

Marissa Ram

By Marissa Ram

Marissa is a Human Rights Center Fellow and Berkeley law student. She is interning with the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, helping to provide legal representation to refugees subject to Australia’s controversial “mandatory detention” policy.

“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.

Drawing of refugee children being deported

Unaccompanied refugee children being deported to Malaysia. (Illustration by Peter Nicholson, "The Australian")

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.

An Australian cow collapsed on the floor of a restraint box

An Australian steer collapsed on the floor of a restraint box. (Source: "Animals Australia")

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.

Kap Lian, 20, a Burmese refugee, at his workplace in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he earns $15 a day and also sleeps at night. (Photo by Rahman Roslan, "The Brisbane Times")

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.

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6 Responses to Four legs good, two legs bad: The ‘Malaysia Solution’ and the live refugee trade

  1. Jodie says:

    It saddens me that many individuals do not feel equally as passionate about the human rights of other people.
    Persons attempting to gain refugee status have often been subjected to vastly inhumane treatment and are coming to Australia in search of help.
    So I have to ask myself, why are we not helping?
    To date, this relatively simple question remains unclear.
    What is clear is that something needs to dramatically change within Australia.

  2. JB says:

    There is so much inherently wrong with this situation, it is difficult to know where to even begin. The treatment of asylum seekers/refugees in Malaysia is inhumane. The fact that these people have to flee their home countries in the first place because of religious, political, ethnic, or sexual persecution is plain abhorrent. But the Australian government’s willful manipulation of the interplay between the two achieves a new level of moral repugnance.

    At least the Australian government has found a ‘bovine solution.’

  3. Annette Anderson says:

    I love animals and do not like to see them abused, I also love my fellow man/woman/child and when I put myself in their position, I to would do anything to give my family a better life in a wonderful country like Australia. To the best of my knowledge it is not against the law to seek asylum so why do the Australian Government insist on treating them as criminals until they are processed, I understand that there needs to be procedures but surely we can allow them the dignity that we as Australians would expect for ourselves.

    I believe our country is big enough and generous enough to do far better for these people, who are in such need.

  4. mohsen manochehripour says:

    I love animals like many other people,but the main issue in this midle is that why the reaction against bothering cows is much more than the persecution against the asylum seeker.

  5. Lis Powelson says:

    Working here in the Malaysian prison (you can see my blog here on Berkeley in the world) I can tell you that the treatment of prisoners here is absolutely inhumane. Under no circumstances should anyone be sent to someplace where they cane the inmates. No one deserves to be caned and certainly not refugees who are guilty of no greater crime than wanting a better life for themselves and their family. This is a ridiculous way for Australia to shrug their responsibility and to commit human rights violations with out getting their hands “dirty”.

  6. Marie says:

    Now, I must begin by stating I am not a passionate follower of immigration issues. My stance on the whole thing is, if you’re going to come over illegally for whatever reason there should be a processing stage however I 100% do not agree on how long the government currently takes to process these ‘detainees’. People get out of prison here for murder faster than some of these detainees. That is however indicative of the type of inefficiencies the government here currently display….but hang on lets just hire a consultant to check if that’s true then hire a consulting firm to check whether they agree with the consultant and then another consultant to see if they agree with the second consultants review of the first consultants work then not do anything because surprise surprise we’ve buggered up the costings and now have no budget….but then again until recently the head of treasury in NSW didn’t even know what an NPV was so really that shouldn’t come as any surprise (An NPV is a basic finance term that all heads of business should know).

    In specific relation to your article however, I’m not so sure about the use of live cattle exports as an appropriate comparison, I would be more interested in hearing about recent human rights violations in Malaysia than live cattle exports to Indonesia…they are after all two different countries. I also find the comment about Malaysia not being part of the UN Refugee convention a little trivial for reasons I will not discuss on this forum, however I will say that if these people fled their countries for fear of their life, then the opportunity to set up a new life in any country should surely be better wouldn’t it????

    At the end of the day however who knows, maybe the government just mucked it up, it wouldn’t be the first time…I mean they do have Singapore (perhaps one of the most liveable cities in the planet) listed as a ‘hardship posting’, so maybe they thought Malaysia was a ‘lifestyle posting’ for refugees? Perhaps the solution would be to send the heads of immigration issues in the government undercover and get them to go through the process a detainee goes through upon arrival in Australia. Then maybe, just maybe something might happen….I wouldn’t hold your breath though.