People trafficking a trade in human misery that must be stopped

Najib Razak
October 27, 2011

Where you or I see a man, a woman or an innocent child, people traffickers see only one thing - money. They target the vulnerable and the desperate and exploit them without mercy, taking advantage of people financially, physically, often even sexually.

The sheer heartlessness of the traffickers was demonstrated in the most horrendous manner last December when the man responsible for taking almost a hundred migrants to Australia abandoned his charges in a leaking, overcrowded boat with an engine that was about to fail.

Dozens drowned when the boat struck rocks off Christmas Island. At least five children and three babies were among the dead. Advertisement: Story continues below

None of us ever want to witness such scenes again, which is why my government worked with Prime Minister Gillard's to develop a means of stopping the people traffickers - what became known as the ''Malaysian solution''.

Over the past few months, a great deal has been written about both the solution and Malaysia itself, much of it ill-informed and based on politics rather than sober analysis of the facts.

The agreement had a single, simple aim - to smash the business model of the people traffickers by telling potential migrants that spending their life savings and risking their lives to get to Australia would lead them only as far as Malaysia.

This deterrent effect was not about Malaysia being a ''bad'' place, somewhere migrants should be scared of ending up. The simple fact is that Malaysia is not the country that boatpeople heading for Australia want to settle in - and more often than not that is down to economics rather than fears of how they might be treated. Because, despite what you may have heard from those who chose to attack my country, Malaysia is not some repressive, backward nation that persecutes refugees and asylum seekers.

We are a multicultural, multi-ethnic society that has a long and proud history of social harmony and welcoming outsiders - including playing a crucial role in helping to find new homes for hundreds of thousands of people displaced by war in Vietnam, Laos and Bosnia.

Today, Malaysia is home to almost 178,000 refugees, stateless persons and other ''people of concern'' to the United Nations, more than seven times as many as you'll find in Australia. The vast majority are free to live in the community, rather than being held in detention centres. They are entitled to subsidised healthcare and free vaccinations for children. We are working with the UNHCR to develop a scheme that would allow some refugees to take jobs in Malaysia. And, no, refugees are not subjected to routine corporal punishment by the authorities. Once an individual is registered as a refugee with the UNHCR - an organisation that has a substantial presence in our country and gave its support to the Malaysian solution - they cannot be prosecuted for immigration offences.

Genuine refugees are treated with the utmost dignity and respect while they await resettlement elsewhere. What we don't tolerate is illegal immigration and people traffickers, and I'm not going to apologise for taking a tough stance on either.

This week, I'm joining Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the leaders of more than 50 other nations for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth. The Commonwealth has always been about countries working together for the greater good and the theme of this year's meeting - building global resilience, building national resilience - underlines this.

International co-operation is the only way to solve international problems. Just over 10 years ago, the chaotic Tampa affair showed what happens when nations fail to work with each other and instead try to act unilaterally to tackle a problem such as illegal immigration.

People traffickers do not respect international borders and legal jurisdictions any more than they respect the human rights of their victims, which is why Malaysia and Australia worked together to develop a way of stopping them.

Merely announcing that the arrangement was being discussed contributed to a 50 per cent fall in the number of boatpeople heading to Australia in the first half of this year and I believe that, once up and running, it would have had a serious impact on the exploitative actions of people smugglers.

At this point, it would be easy to give up, to tell ourselves that we tried but the problem was too big, too politically difficult to deal with. And the people-smuggling would go on. The boats would continue to sail. Heartless traffickers would continue to take everything from desperate people - their money, their dignity and, all too often, their lives.

As the Prime Minister of a progressive, liberal nation, I'm not prepared to stand by and watch that happen. Malaysia has always led south-east Asia in dealing with international problems, so we will continue to work with Australia, and our partners across the region and beyond, to find new ways of stopping the traffickers for good.

It is too early to say exactly what the next stage in the fight will look like, but one thing is clear - we cannot afford to play politics with people trafficking. It is nothing less than a 21st century trade in human misery and it must not be allowed to continue.

Najib Razak is the Prime Minister of Malaysia.


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