There are 54 of them, and they include four women and a young boy. They say they are from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Little more is known about them, but they are about to become famous; soon after arriving in Australia, these asylum-seekers will be filmed being expelled and the footage posted online.
Intercepted in the Indian Ocean last Sunday, the group – currently being escorted to Christmas Island, the Australian staging-post – will be the first people sent to Malaysia under a controversial swap. If they try to resist, there could be ugly scenes. Police have been authorised to use force to make sure they board the plane to Kuala Lumpur and riot officers have been training daily in a jungle clearing on Christmas Island.
Under a deal finalised last week, Australia will dispatch 800 asylum-seekers to Malaysia for processing. In exchange, it will take 4,000 refugees currently in Malaysia awaiting resettlement. The aim of Australia's Labor government is to show voters that it is tough on boat people – as tough as the conservative opposition – and to deter them from making the often perilous journey. Hence the plan to film the unfortunate 54 as they land on Christmas Island, board the plane to Malaysia and arrive in camps in Kuala Lumpur for processing. The footage will be posted on the video-sharing website YouTube and the social-network site Facebook, with asylum-seekers' faces pixelated.
The Malaysia Solution, as it is being called – following on from the Pacific Solution of the former conservative prime minister, John Howard, which saw asylum-seekers sent to remote Pacific islands – has been condemned by human-rights organisations. Kuala Lumpur has not signed the UN refugee convention and Malaysia has a record of mistreating refugees.
Ric Towle, the representative in Australia of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told The Australian this week that it was "too early to say" whether asylum-seekers would be properly protected in Malaysia.
Julia Gillard, Australia's most unpopular Prime Minister in decades, is pressing ahead with the plan despite the fact that the refugee problem is, on a global scale, tiny. Less than half of 1 per cent of the world's asylum-seekers reach Australia and the numbers are dropping. More than 6,500 people came by boat last year; by mid-April this year fewer than 1,000 had arrived.
Most asylum-seekers pay people smugglers to transport them to Christmas Island, after flying to Malaysia or Indonesia. An Immigration Department spokesman said that footage of the 54 being expelled "will be a very potent message that demonstrates the futility of engaging with the people smugglers... risking your life at sea, only to be put on a plane to be flown back to Malaysia".