Gillard's Malaysia plan falling apart

Labor now urged to revive Howard's Pacific Solution by refugee activists

LABOR'S support base on border security is crumbling, with a key critic of the Howard government's Pacific Solution calling for its partial revival in preference to Labor's "nightmare" plan to send unaccompanied children to Malaysia.

Marion Le, a refugee lawyer, last night urged Labor to reopen the Nauru processing centre - the same facility she demanded be shut in 2005 because of concern about the treatment of asylum-seekers.

She was backed by human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, who accused Labor of failure on refugees and said asylum-seekers would receive better treatment in Nauru than Malaysia.

Meanwhile, in Western Australia, 14 state Labor MPs signed a petition condemning the plan to send unaccompanied minors to Malaysia as part of the refugee swap.

Opposition to Julia Gillard's Malaysian solution hardened yesterday after news that a draft agreement over her plan to exchange 800 boatpeople for 4000 confirmed refugees processed in Malaysia excluded any reference to human rights.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen guaranteed the final agreement would address human rights concerns, but further inflamed his critics by revealing he would send unaccompanied minors to Malaysia.

Labor announced its plans to transfer asylum-seekers to Malaysia last month as a means of discouraging people-smuggling. It argued that if asylum-seekers knew they could be sent to Malaysia once they reached Australia they would be less likely to risk the voyage. But refugee advocates and the Australian Greens have condemned the deal, noting that Malaysia did not observe UN protocols for handling refugees and, in the past, asylum-seekers had been publicly caned.

Yesterday, Ms Le said it was time for Labor to "bite the bullet" and reopen Nauru, which was mothballed in 2007 after Kevin Rudd took office. Her position puts her in agreement with Tony Abbott, who has demanded the Prime Minister "pick up the phone" to the government of Nauru.

"The place itself is not the problem . . . the situation on Nauru is much better than on the mainland and in Malaysia," Ms Le told The Weekend Australian. "The detention centre needs to be operated by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Reopening Nauru would be far better than all the nightmare ideas this government has put forward."

Ms Le, who visited Nauru in 2003 and 2004, said children and unaccompanied minors on the island were properly fed, taken to school and given access to sporting activities and fishing. According to the UNHCR, child refugees in Malaysia do not go to school and are not housed in refugee camps, surviving instead in low-cost flats.

Mr Burnside said if it was a choice between Malaysia and Nauru, he would choose the latter. "Nauru is certainly the less worse, but both are unacceptable." Mr Burnside said Labor should be ashamed of the "scandalous" Malaysian deal, which was "as bad as the Pacific Solution".

"In one way, it is worse because we know Malaysia has a bad track record in its treatment of asylum-seekers," he said. "The idea of sending unaccompanied minors there as well makes it more disgraceful. This is being driven by raw politics. They're behaving like the Howard government."

Mr Bowen said the final agreement with Malaysia would reflect Ms Gillard's insistence that there must be proper regard for the human rights of asylum-seekers. "Let's see this agreement play out," Mr Bowen told ABC radio. "There will be a range of protections to operationalise the commitment given by the Prime Minister of Malaysia about respect for human rights."

Mr Bowen said he was not prepared to make exemptions for children because this would encourage people-smugglers to entice children on dangerous voyages to Australia in leaky boats.

He said the use of Nauru would not break the people-smugglers' business model. "If you go to Nauru, you would end up back in Australia - that's what happened before," he said.

In 2001, there were 44 unauthorised boat arrivals in Australian waters carrying 5516 people, including the Tampa. The Howard government then brought in the Pacific Solution, and in 2002 there was just one unauthorised boat arrival carrying one person. From 2003 until 2007, when Labor won power, there were 17 boats carrying 287 people. As of last night, there were 5976 people in immigration detention in Australia. There have been 25 boat arrivals this year.

Former Howard government immigration minister Philip Ruddock said Labor had attacked the Pacific Solution and was not prepared to "lose face" by reopening the Nauru centre. "In my judgment, they should have simply pocketed their pride and said, 'We made a mistake in criticising the Howard government and the approach they took. We now have to put all of those measures in place to bring this insidious people-smuggling trade to an end'."

Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young declared Labor was providing no leadership or compassion. "I think compassionate thinking Australians are sick to death of being taken down this false road of a race to the bottom with no true leadership," she said. "I would be suggesting no one is sent back to Malaysia. That's the Greens' position."

Labor faced criticism on the issue from 14 West Australian Labor MPs, with frontbencher Ben Wyatt saying he was appalled and embarrassed by the federal government's position.

"Federal Labor has lost its way by now making the decision to brutalise and penalise children caught up in terrible circumstances of asylum," he told AAP. "I'm a former army officer, and I fully understand and support strong border protection policy . . . but this is an appalling decision and I'm embarrassed."


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