The Australian government’s apathetic treatment of refugees and asylum seekers has long been a blot on its record – an irony given the historical make-up of the country and its rulers. Any hope that the new Gillard administration would reverse the hawkish policies of former prime minister John Howard, who championed the island gulags that hold thousands of refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma and elsewhere, has been short-lived – Gillard, herself a Welsh immigrant to Australia, is pushing ahead with a plan to send hundreds of refugees to Malaysia, one of only a handful of countries not to have ratified the UN refugee convention and which is therefore not bound by international laws dictating how refugees should be treated.

Australia-Malaysia refugees

Refugees sit in a detention center on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Pic: AP.

Forgetting the hypocrisy of Canberra’s attempts to deny those in need asylum (Gillard arrived in Australia aged four after doctors in the UK prescribed a warmer climate as a cure for a bronchial condition), there is real concern about the conditions that the 800 refugees earmarked for the ‘Malaysia Solution’ will be forced into. Nearly 170,000 refugees and asylum-seekers “come to Malaysia seeking safety, having fled situations of torture, persecution or death threats,” said an Amnesty report last year. “But once they arrive, they are abused, exploited, arrested and locked-up – in effect treated like criminals.”

The 800 leaving Australia for Malaysia are mostly ‘boatpeople’ who have washed up on Australia’s shores only to be detained in over-crowded, high security centres on Christmas Island or onshore camps, where some have been known to stay for as long as five years. They are the victims of Howard’s strengthening in 2001 of the government’s mandatory detention policy, which allows for indefinite detention of unauthorised persons, including children (something that the ruling Labour government, which used as an election stick criticism of the ‘children behind razor wire’ practice of Howard, spoke out against in the run-up to the 2007 vote).

By inking the deal with Malaysia, Gillard has violated Australia’s obligations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Article 33 states that “no contracting State shall expel or return (refouler) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his (or her) life or freedom would be threatened”. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has already said the move is illegal, and Australia’s parliament has rejected it, but that matters little – it is effectively a done deal, Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition told DVB earlier this month.

Every now and then, a detainee in one of these Australian centres erupts in a fit of frustration, and for a brief period draws attention to conditions in the camps – earlier this year a man from the Rohingya minority in Burma attempted to set himself on fire in a Darwin camp; last week another Burmese man went on hunger strike. Other nationalities populating the camps have fled war and persecution in the Middle East, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere; now bound for Malaysia, they will be sent to the back of the immigration queue and forced to go through the interminable trials of registration. During that uncertain period, “they face the daily prospect of being arrested, detained in squalid conditions, and tortured and otherwise ill-treated, including by caning”, says the Amnesty report, followed by a precarious life within the bounds of strict immigrant laws.

Gillard et al are using the initiative as a warning “not to get on that boat” – continual acceptance of refugees would also “send the wrong message” to the people smugglers who facilitate these perilous journeys across seas, they say. Some observers claim it is a populist appeal aimed at harnessing support from Australia’s growing anti-immigration lobby. Regardless, Gillard chooses to ignore the end-results of these policies – a striking show of callousness and hypocrisy given her background.