By Lyle Shelton first published in Online Opinion here
[caption id="attachment_5635" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Chief of Staff, Lyle Shelton"][/caption]
The global refugee crisis is overwhelming. According to the United Nations, there are 20 million refugees displaced from their homelands mainly because of war or persecution.
Millions live in squalid conditions waiting for their claims to be processed by the hopelessly under-resourced United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
For the past five years, Australia has accepted just 13,000-14,000 refugees per year. We can do better.
Since the Rudd Government relaxed the former Howard Government's much maligned border protection policies, around 11,000 people have paid up to $18,000 US to criminal people smugglers and risked life and limb on the ocean.
Hundreds have died unseen at sea but the danger faced by those who buy passage on a smuggler's boat was rammed home by the images of the wooden craft crashing into rocks at Christmas Island and the public grief of relatives of the deceased at the Sydney funeral this year.
Detention centres at Christmas Island and Villawood are overcrowded and burning.
While it is difficult for us to judge whether or not someone is a genuine refugee as opposed to someone seeking a better life in a prosperous and free country, the reality is that every asylum seeker who has money to pay people smugglers displaces a penniless UN-assessed refugee waiting in a camp or a slum in Malaysia.
People smugglers have been able to sell some asylum seekers a product that allows them to bypass the UNHCR for a fast track to Australia.
A long wait in an Australian detention centre is no deterrent because most know conditions are more tolerable there than in the camps or slums, notwithstanding the razor wire.
Meanwhile one of our regional neighbours, Malaysia, has 90,000 refugees. Many of these are fleeing the brutal military junta in Burma.
Thousands of these people have already been processed by the UNHCR in Kuala Lumpur and have been found to be genuine refugees.
Four thousand of these will now have the chance for a new life in Australia that the crime of people smuggling has arguably denied many of them.
Many refugee advocates argue that "there is no queue". But Prime Minister Julia Gillard this week begged to differ with this mantra.
Even the far left Greens are now saying there is a queue when it comes to bringing in skilled migrants to help with the labour shortage in the mining industry.
Gillard's deal with Malaysia, which is yet to be consummated, will see 800 people smuggler customers sent to the back of the queue.
There is no doubt that people who pay for passage with a people smuggler are desperate and that many of them will be assessed as genuine refugees.
It is high praise for Australia, a country profoundly shaped by its Christian heritage, that these people, the majority of whom are Muslim, prefer to by-pass other Muslim states such as Malaysia and Indonesia which practice Sharia Law to varying degrees, to make their new life here.
But a penniless person in Darfur, on the Thai-Burma border or living in a slum in Malaysia is also desperate.
The difference is the means to pay a people smuggler.
Because the global refugee crisis is overwhelming, the global community must find a way to help these people as justly and as fairly as possible.
Allowing people smugglers to exploit our compassion for refugees does not deliver justice to those who cannot afford to pay.
Then there are those refugees out of the media spotlight like the Christian Afghan community in New Delhi. Like Malaysia, India is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees.
However, unlike Malaysia, India has given notice that it will forcibly send some Christian Afghans back to Afghanistan where they face the death penalty for the crime of converting to Christianity.
This will come as shock to most Australians who are generally proud of the fact that our military is playing a role in restoring civility to a country that once harboured Osama bin Ladin's terrorist training camps and whose barbarian Taliban rulers trampled the human rights of women and girls.
How could it be that the new Afghanistan where our troops are based can be contributing to the global refugee crisis by denying religious freedom through the application of no less than the death penalty?
Labor's 'Malaysian solution' is a step in the right direction because it puts the focus back on the enormity of the global humanitarian crisis and seeks to address it in a much more compassionate manner.
ACL has long called for increased resources to process the claims of refugees in source countries. We have long argued for Australia to be more generous with its humanitarian intake. We have also supported off-shore processing as a means of deterring people smuggling.
Sunday's announcement shows compassion to the forgotten refugees while disrupting people smuggling which will save lives on the open sea.