Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has suffered a severe blow to her plan to send asylum-seekers to Malaysia. Ms. Gillard was trying to pass legislation in parliament to allow this under Australian law, but she was forced to withdraw the bill after it became clear she would not get enough votes.
Ms. Gillard's asylum policy has been in crisis since Australia's High Court ruled that sending refugees to Malaysia was unlawful. Under the "Malaysia swap" plan, Australia would have sent 800 asylum-seekers who arrived by boat on to Malaysia for processing. Australia would have received 4,000 refugees already certified by the United Nations in return, over four years.
But at the end of August, the court ruled that Malaysia did not offer enough protection to refugees under domestic and international law. Malaysia has yet to sign a key UN refugee convention on the issue.
The court judgment also effectively ruled out sending asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea, something Australian officials had been discussing with the PNG government.
A successful vote in parliament would have allowed Ms. Gillard's government to go ahead with the planned refugee swap despite the legal challenge, by amending Australia's migration law to give the government power to send asylum-seekers to an "offshore processing country". The only obligation in choosing that destination would be that it was “in the national interest”.
Ms. Gillard's supporters had hoped to secure victory on the bill, after narrowly passing equally controversial legislation on a carbon tax earlier this week.
But Tony Crook, a conservative independent whose vote Ms. Gillard had been depending on to back the asylum-seeker bill, announced yesterday that he could not back the Malaysia swap plan on humanitarian grounds.
The opposition similarly withheld its support, saying Australia should only send refugees to countries that have signed the UN refugee convention.
Rather than face certain defeat, Ms. Gillard's cabinet had no choice but to withdraw the bill. Ms. Gillard leads a minority government; they do not have enough votes to pass legislation in parliament by themselves.
“This is bloody-mindedness from the Prime Minister,” opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said, “the Government’s mess is one of its own making.”
Report: Australian PM Julia Gillard drops Malaysia asylum plan [BBC News, 13 Oct 2011]
Report: Asylum Seekers to Be Handled in Australia in Gillard Setback [Bloomberg, 13 Oct 2011]
Analysis: Snatching defeat from victory [The Economist, 13 Oct 2011]
In the meantime, the government says it will process more asylum seekers arriving by boat in the community to stop an expected increase in numbers overloading the immigration detention system.
Ms Gillard said the government was determined to maintain the mandatory detention system, where refugees arriving in Australia by boat must first stay in camps. Last year, some 6,535 people arrived in Australia seeking asylum. Up to August this year, Australia has seen some 36 boats carrying 2,183 people arrive on its shores.
As of the end of August, there were 4,427 people detained on the Australian mainland, with another 811 on Christmas Island.
At present, Australia has enough room to house another 2,400 refugees in its detention facilities, with another 2,100 places expected to open up by the end of the year.
Ms. Gillard insists she remains committed to the Malaysia swap plan, but admitted defeat on the issue.
“We believe it’s the best policy outcome for this country, that it would give the maximum deterrence effect, to deter people from getting on leaky boats and risking their lives,” she said, "[but] it's clear that the migration law of this country will not be amended, and as a result the government is not in a position now... to have asylum seekers processed in third countries."
However, the Australian opposition has pushed for the reopening of a processing centre on the island nation of Nauru, which just signed the UN refugee convention late last month.
Report: PM forced into retreat on asylum seeker plan [Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Oct 2011]
Malaysia has reacted with disappointment on the Australian decision, but said it would continue to work with Australia in finding new and effective ways of dealing with human trafficking even though the asylum swap deal is off.
“The arrangement between our governments would have tackled this in a way that would protect the interests of both Australia and Malaysia, and above all, the migrants involved," said a statement from Malaysia's Home Ministry.
“Building on the momentum established over the past few months, we will continue to work with Australia to deal with this 21st century trade in human misery."
The Malaysian Home Ministry said officials would explore options at an annual working group on smuggling and trafficking in Sydney next month.
Report: KL to work with Canberra on human trafficking [The Star, 14 Oct 2011]
Earlier this week, Ms. Gillard's government had been optimistic after passing a controversial bill for a carbon tax. The Clean Energy Bill 2011 narrowly passed in the lower house, and is now expected to be approved by the upper house.
The new carbon tax will force about 500 of the biggest polluters to pay for each tonne of carbon dioxide they emit. The tax is central to the government's strategy to combat climate change.
But Australia's opposition says the carbon tax will cause job losses and raise the cost of living. They have vowed to overturn the tax if elected in Australia's next polls set for 2013. Analysts say they have a fair chance of victory, given Ms. Gillard's approval rating is low.
Report: Australia parliament passes divisive carbon tax [BBC News, 12 Oct 2011]
Report: Australia's carbon tax plan passes biggest hurdle [Reuters, 12 Oct 2011]