Arja Keski-Nummi. Offshore Processing in Cambodia – Really?

The idea of Cambodia as a so-called offshore processing centre is not new. For a nanosecond I recalled the former government contemplated Cambodia as a likely candidate for an offshore processing centre. Thankfully saner heads prevailed, although to their discredit they did also contemplate East Timor.

The scramble to avoid doing the decent thing and accept our responsibility to process asylum seekers quickly and fairly is mind-boggling.  This government is following in the questionable footsteps of the former government in shirking decency for short-term political gain.

Just consider the countries we are using for off shore processing or the one, Cambodia, now being considered.

According to the CIA publication The World Fact Book 2013, Australia’s population of 22.2million has a life expectancy of close to 83 years, a GDP per head of $US 42 000  We have 3.85 doctors available for each 1000 people and by international comparisons negligible poverty. Compare this with PNG which has a GDP per head of $US 2700, a life expectancy of 66 years, where 37% of the population live below the poverty line and where there are only 0.05 doctors per 1000 .In Cambodia the statistics show the following for a population of 15.2milllion: life expectancy 63 years, GDP per head $US 2400, and where there are 0.23 doctors per 1 000 population and where 20% of the population live below the poverty line.

We live in different worlds. Not only should we be embarrassed.  We should be ashamed to think that this is even considered.

If we were truly serious about regional security and building a sustainable and dynamic regional economy and societies then we would not be offshoring our responsibilities for a small proportion of the world’s asylum seekers. We would not be decreasing our aid efforts in poverty alleviation, health and education as we have done to the tune of $250 million in the Asia Pacific region while “bribing” poor, politically unstable countries to take asylum seekers for an unknown number of years.

The Foreign Minister cited the Bali Process as justification for the approach to Cambodia. It is a disingenuous characterization of the Bali Process to see an arrangement with Cambodia as consistent with recent Bali Ministerial communiqués that endorsed the concept of regional processing centres. It would do the government well to know how such arrangements worked in the Comprehensive Plan of Action under the Indo China program to understand how regional governments might view such arrangements now.

It would also diminish the Bali Process if the Government uses it as merely a people smuggling forum and not actively support the development of the broader regional arrangements that Bali Process governments have endorsed in recent years and which address in a more holistic way both the people smuggling dimensions of population movements as well as protection and support arrangements for displaced people.  Admittedly such arrangements are not “quick fixes” but in the long run are more sustainable and realistic.  The pity is that Australian governments seldom have a long-term strategy in mind and are limited by their lack of imagination, the political cycle and fear of an electoral backlash.

In 2012 there was an answer in the proposed arrangement with Malaysia that the Abbott Opposition rejected because it suited them, not because they really believed it was wrong but because they did not want the former government to succeed in “stopping the boats”.  Well, now that the Abbott Government has succeeded in that they should be big enough to revisit the Malaysia arrangement. It should see if it can be salvaged, make the necessary legislative changes and get on with the job. That arrangement was sound, it was humane, it was supported by the UNHCR and importantly it addressed the issue of displacement “in situ” unlike the arrangements on Nauru, PNG or indeed if it happens Cambodia. None of these are countries of transit or in any appreciable way countries of first asylum. Indeed with the current arrangements we are exporting those problems to them!

If the two parties were really serious they would do what two previous Governments, the Fraser and Hawke governments did when faced with similar issues and talk to each other, agree on a way forward and show leadership by dealing with these issues not as a political free for all that creates social disharmony but rather as a responsible and humane approach to address the circumstance of vulnerable people displaced by war and civil unrest.

Arja Keski-Nummi was First Assistant Secretary of the Refugee, Humanitarian and International Division of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship from 2007 to 2010.

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