Refugee response (photo: News Limited)

In a jungle clearing on a rocky outcrop in the Indian Ocean named after the most joyous event on the Christian calendar, a gaggle of Darth Vader lookalikes armed with batons and riot shields prepares for a decidedly joyless battle with unarmed men, women and children. Seventy Australian Federal Police officers are on Christmas Island to enforce Australia’s new policy of repelling illegal immigrants by forcing them onto planes and flying them to the back of the official refugee queues in Malaysia. Banned from drinking alcohol, they train every day not in the normal procedures of crowd control or riot containment but in how to inflict their will on desperate people who’ve risked all by traveling across the seas in leaky boats and have precious little left to lose. The resolve of these officers is about to be sorely tested.

Across the horizon, the first refugee boat to be covered by the new arrangements – announced a fortnight ago – is steadily approaching. On board are 54 asylum seekers who’ve paid people smugglers in Indonesia up to $10,000 to make the hazardous crossing. Do they know what’s in store for them? Undoubtedly not or they would never have parted with their money. Because far from being merely detained in Australia while their claims for refugee status are processed, these 54 arrivals are about to be made an example of by a government determined to send a watching world the toughest of messages to break the people smuggling trade.

Forced rendition

When they scramble ashore, the refugees will be medically examined, processed and herded onto aircraft – not for the Australian mainland like those who’ve come before them but straight back to Asia. There, they face many years in limbo in a country with little patience for their plight and a history of brutality towards refugees, including beatings with the Malaysian implement of choice – the rattan. How will they react when they learn that they’ve been duped of their life savings by the people smugglers and the welcome mat they’ve dreamed of is abruptly wrenched from underneath them? The preparations being made by Australian officials give us some idea.

It will be classic carrot and stick. The carrot will come in the form of sympathetic social workers assuring the refugees that the agreement Australia has struck with Malaysia will give them special status among the tens of thousands of refugees already waiting there for placement. Unlike the others, they’ll evidently be allowed to work, be given accommodation and their children will be educated. But if that’s not enough to get them onto the plane, that’s when Darth Vader steps in with the stick.

The Federal Police have been authorised to use “whatever force is necessary” –  teargas, batons and beanbag bullets, according to one report in The Australian, which witnessed a fully equipped riot squad mounting a training charge with batons raised yelling “Get Back!”. Drugs – notably Valium – will also be used to sedate both the agitated and the despairing, though whether these will be forcibly administered remains to be seen. Welcome to Australia. Er, make that Malaysia.

Someone else's problem (Photo: News Limited)

The increasingly beleaguered Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, tactfully put it thus:”Obeying instructions here is not a question of volunteering, People will be given an instruction to board a plane. We will be looking to people to obey that instruction. If it’s not obeyed, then we have security personnel, we have the Australian Federal Police, we also have counsellors available to talk things through with people.” The government – Gillard said – was “determined to get this done” – yes, even if that means men, women and children dragged kicking and screaming onto rendition flights.

None of this will be done in secret. Far from it. Because a media strategy to give the forced deportations the widest possible global coverage is at the heart of the government’s campaign. Labor wants the world to see the crackdown and is prepared to wear any opprobrium if it finally “stops the boats” and deprives opposition leader Tony Abbott of one of the most potent weapons in his electoral arsenal. So our television screens seem destined to be filled with the human equivalent of the live cattle trade in a spectacle designed to deter would-be boat people and destroy the smugglers’ lucrative trade. The problem for Labor is the revulsion it will induce among ordinary Australians and especially its traditional supporters on the centre left. The “bleeding hearts” that underpin Labor will be hemorrhaging like never before.

Chris Bowen: Ignorance is bliss (photo: News Limited)

The Government will argue that it has no choice, justifying its hard line by stressing that Australia will be taking five legitimate, processed refugees from Malaysia for every one “illegal” boat person it sends there. All well and good. Yet once again, Labor appears to have embarked on a half cocked strategy that hasn’t been competently implemented.  The Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, keeps stressing that Australia’s deal with Malaysia guarantees that the refugees sent there will be able to seek work to support their families. Yet Malaysian officials have studiously avoided mentioning this supposed cornerstone of the entire program.

One Malaysian refugee advocate told The Australian that Malay language media packs on the agreement made no mention of work rights and the only official comment on the provision had come from Bowen himself. When questioned – the paper said – the minister couldn’t say “how or where and asylum-seeker’s right to work would be codified in Malaysian law”. Nor could he say who would run the immigration transit facilities in Malaysia that will house the detainees when they arrive. All this beggars belief given Labor’s insistence that its “Malaysian Solution” is infinitely better than the Coalition’s “Pacific Solution”, which at least retained control of the refugee response in Australian hands.

UNHCR's Rick Towle

But perhaps the most damning aspect of this whole sorry affair is that far from endorsing the Australian-Malaysian arrangement – as the two countries have claimed – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees seems to have washed its hands of it. The UNHCR’s regional head in Australia, Rick Towle, stressed that the organisation was not a signatory to the agreement and it was “too early to say” whether the transferred asylum seekers would be protected in Malaysia. This from the body charged by the world community with protecting refugees and arranging their resettlement. The UNHCR seems to be acutely aware of something the Australian Government is not – the impact on global opinion when a prosperous western country forces the dispossessed and the distressed onto planes and deposits them on someone else’s doorstep to become someone else’s problem. Labor’s Australia. Land of the morally bankrupt.