Morrison signs Cambodia refugee deal, is condemned by UNHCR

October 08, 2014
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The polarising issue of asylum seekers found a new low last week as Immigration Minister Scott Morrison clinked champagne glasses under a lavish chandelier in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. He was there to sign an agreement which in usual style had been kept hush-hush for months, the details of which are still quite vague.

Morrison traded 40 million dollars of aid money to be able to offer refugees currently held at Nauru voluntary resettlement in Cambodia. Cambodia, the second most corrupt country in Asia after North Korea and one of the poorest nations in the world.

The Cambodian government has stated it will test run the project by accepting as little as four or five refuges to begin with. They too, want to decide who comes to their country and the circumstances under which they come. We’re just lucky we can sweeten the deal with the national bank card.

The agreement is nothing short of awkward. It champions a complete disregard for our responsibilities and hits another nail in the coffin of our international reputation. Refugees have been at the centre of our nation’s politics now for well over two decades.


The issue has made Prime Ministers and crushed them. The issue has helped political bigwigs win elections and also help them lose them. Issues surrounding refugees have been wedged firmly into our national discourse and have constantly caused raucous. It’s time for a calm, rational debate.

In 1992, the then Keating Government introduced the best asylum seeker deterrent since the White Australia Policy. It was called mandatory detention.

The move was the crutch the Right needed. And then under Howard, the dialogue of debate spiralled when ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘queue jumpers’ entered our political vocabs. One Nation was having the time of their political lives. Pauline Hanson couldn’t stop smiling.

The Pacific Solution – a suite of measures and recommendations to the Government on how best to deal with asylum seeker issues in the short, medium and long term – was given a red carpet roll out. The Defence Force began intercepting boats. Those in reasonable condition were sent back, those with leaks big enough to make future PM Kevin Rudd jealous were ferried quickly to offshore detention centres. This is where refugees would suffer indefinite mandatory detention.

The debate thickened, the Pacific Solution was immoral. It bypassed International Law, involved a high level of diplomatic bribery and resulted in an uncanny neglect of national responsibility. Yet apparently it worked. The boats stopped coming. Howard was a conservative hero with a strong and effective policy. The Left scrambled in defeat.


It was now Rudd’s time to shine. He strived to bring the human element back into the debate. He abolished temporary protection visas, ended offshore processing and dismantled the Pacific Solution. In 2006, Rudd’s Faith In Politics essay published in the Monthly, argued:

“Another great challenge of our age is asylum seekers. The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear. The parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to the vulnerable strange in our midst. That is why the government’s proposal to excise the Australian mainland from the entire Australian migration zone and rely almost exclusively on the so-called Pacific Solution should be the cause of great ethical concern to all the Christian churches…”

His attempt to fight malicious policy with religious morals was a political nightmare.

Rudd’s humanitarian move unlocked the floodgates for people smugglers. Australia was once again a red hot destination and open for business. He turned to Indonesia for help by offering funding, cooperation and intelligence. Labor hoped that by addressing the root of the people smuggling trade, they could solve the problem. The thing is, you see, it failed. And miserably.


Then with Julia Gillard came a tough stance on refugees. She reintroduced offshore processing and again, catching the boats seemingly meant catching the votes. For the first time since Keating, Labor looked in control of our boarders. The polls picked up.

Enter Tony Abbott, who’s sitting in the middle of the front bench, confused and disorientated. And just when you thought things couldn’t get any more serious in comes Operation Sovereign Borders – the government’s plan highlighting national sovereignty. Nauru is reopened in 2012, horrific stories begin to leak out and the UNHCR is gob smacked.


The Cambodian deal only makes the question clearer. As a nation, how do we move past the cultural hostility embedded in the debate surrounding asylum seekers?

The tone of the debate needs to change. For too long now we’ve been caught between a rock and a hard place. Between an unorganised Left and malicious Right, between ineffective solutions and the inhumane treatment of the most underprivileged global citizens.

Australia needs to work with the UNHCR to support its processes instead of dismantling and ignoring effective systems. Australia needs to increase its refugee intake in order to keep up with international demands.

I think that finding a real, long lasting solution is actually possible, but first we need to start the right conversation. Yes we want to stop the people smugglers, the heartache. In my opinion, Australia needs a better attitude towards its responsibility to protect the vulnerable.

Cait Kelly

Cait Kelly goes to La Trobe University.