THE Federal Government’s recently negotiated asylum-seeker swap deal with Malaysia has been criticised by representatives of Catholic social justice agencies who say it “punishes the vulnerable”.
Under the agreement signed on July 25, Australia will send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in exchange for 4000 refugees, whose cases have been verified by the United Nations refugee agency.
St Vincent de Paul Society national council chief executive Dr John Falzon said “the deal presents a false and demeaning picture of the plight of refugees … it reinforces the myth of ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ asylum seekers”.
Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office (ACMRO) director Scalabrinian Father Maurizio Pettena said “once the 800 quota is full and we continue to receive more boat arrivals, the following questions remain to be answered: Why are they coming? What is motivating them to risk their lives? What can we do to help?”
Edmund Rice Centre director Phil Glendenning said Malaysia’s poor human rights record and refusal to sign the Refugee Con-vention, raised “deep fears” for the wellbeing of these asylum seekers.
He said “the deportation deal announced with Malaysia demonstrates that both sides of Parliament have allowed the asylum debate to become out of proportion to reality”.
All spokesmen said the arrival of asylum seekers by boat continued to be highly politicised and that the numbers of such arrivals were insignificant in comparison with Aust-ralia’s total migration program.
Dr Falzon said “despite the hype engaged in by both sides of politics, the reality is that Australia is the destination of only two per cent of the people seeking asylum in industrialised nations across the world”.
“Sadly, many people across the globe continue to live in conditions that are dangerous and de-humanising,” he said.
“Australia should play a responsible role in providing a safe haven for the people who need it, irrespective of the means by which they have sought to come here.
“As the Government well knows, these people are exercising a legitimate right in requesting asylum.
“They should have their claims processed with dignity and speed, without unnecessary detention, and on Australian soil.”
Fr Pettena said the Malaysian deal “reflects a domestic political notion that Australia is under threat from boat arrivals”.
“In fact, these small numbers of boat arrivals are insignificant in comparison to our total migration program,” he said.
“According to the Department of Im-migration and Citizenship, this included almost 170,000 permanent and over 3.4 million visitor visas in 2009-10,” he said.
“Host to over 92,000 refugees, Malay-sia has a much greater challenge than Australia in order to fully utilise the benefits that refugees can bring to destination countries. Australia could provide a much better life for these 800 people than they can expect in Malaysia.”
He said Australia “is excellent at resettling refugees and our community has always shown admirable spirit in helping those in need”.
“Think back to the community response to the Melbourne bushfires, the floods in Queensland, the earthquake in New Zealand,” he said.
“When Australians are called to help – amazing results can be achieved.”
He invoked Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini who said in 1890 migration “in almost all cases is not a pleasure but a necessity”.
“Clandestine migration to Australia occurs because of what is happening in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka,” he said.
The ERC said while welcoming the announcement Australia would take more refugees, “the idea of trading one group of vulnerable human beings for another group is not the way to do it”.
“The human lives at risk are too important for poll-driven endless partisan point-scoring,” Mr Glendenning said.
“The vast majority of asylum seekers coming to this country, arrive by plane – not by boat.”
The agreement with Malaysia will increase Australia’s overall annual humanitarian intake to 14,750 places.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said asylum seekers transferred to Malaysia would be treated with dignity and respect.
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