The Greens and Asylum Seekers. How the ‘perfect’ became the enemy of the ‘good’.

The policy ‘purity’ of the Greens has helped deliver us Nauru and Manus where asylum seekers are suffering. Furthermore, and as the former Secretary of the Department of Immigration told us last year, the Nauru/Manus approach would not work again to deter asylum seekers. That now seems tragically borne out by more tragedies at sea

In the Senate last year, the Greens voted with the Coalition to defeat Government legislation which would have allowed cooperation between the Malaysian Government, UNHCR and the Australian Government on processing in Malaysia. This legislation was in response to the High Court striking down the Malaysian agreement.  As a result of the combined actions of the High Court and the Greens in the Senate, we saw a three-fold increase in boat arrivals.

The Greens say that they believe in a regional framework on asylum seekers, as we all do. But they rejected a key building block, the agreement with Malaysia, which would have been a feature of a developing regional framework. As a result of the collapse of the Malaysian Agreement, the Government sided with the Coalition and amongst other changes, agreed to the reopening of Nauru and Manus which many had hoped was dead and buried for ever. The Greens stood aside and preferred to throw rocks

The Greens must bear a heavy responsibility for what is now happening in Nauru /Manus and at sea. They played to the gallery of some of the NGOs rather than working on an acceptable compromise involving Malaysia. The ‘perfect’ became the enemy of the ‘good’.

The UNHCR has said that it will not have a bar of Nauru / Manus. In contrast the agreement with Malaysia was described by the Regional Director of UNHCR in Australia to the Australian Parliament on 30 September 2011 in the following terms.

‘Many persons of concern to UNHCR stand to benefit from this program (with Malaysia) by having their status regularised. It would mean all refugees in Malaysia would, in addition to their registration and ID documents from UNHCR, be registered with the government’s immigration data base and thus protected from arbitrary arrest and detention. It would also mean that all refugees in Malaysia would have the right to work on a par with legal migrants in the country. This would also entitle them to the same insurance and health schemes as documented for legal migrant workers.’

For Malaysia this agreement was quite remarkable progress. This is in a country that has a burden of much larger numbers of refugees than we have and is much poorer. But because the Agreement with Malaysia was not enshrined in law it was discounted.

The Malaysian Agreement is now in abeyance. It would need to be updated and revised, beginning first in the Australian Parliament. And of course, its effectiveness would depend on good implementation. There is no doubt however that if implemented well it would be a significant step forward.

The asylum seekers languishing in Nauru / Manus are paying a heavy price for the posturing of the Greens with their policy purity.

John Menadue

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