Australia’s High Commissioner to Malaysia has welcomed a statement from the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledging Canberra’s concern about high numbers of Malaysians applying for asylum in Australia.
In an interview with The Malaysian Reserve newspaper last week, High Commissioner Andrew Goledzinowski said 33,000 Malaysians had applied for asylum in Australia in recent years, most of whom were thought not to be genuine refugees.
“Many who overstay then apply for refugee status. At the moment, we have 33,000 Malaysian citizens — not Syrians, not Rohingyas — who have applied as a refugee in Australia,” Mr Goledzinowski was quoted as saying.
“We take refugees seriously and they are trying to delay the time to be removed [from Australia],” he added.
More than 10,000 Malaysian nationals are estimated to be in Australia unlawfully — a significantly higher number than people from any other country.
“The Government has no tolerance for those trying to take advantage of our visa system,” an Australian Border Force spokesperson told the ABC.
Along with citizens of Canada, Japan, Singapore and the US, Malaysians are one of the few nationalities eligible to apply through Australia’s Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) system.
The ETA system allows foreigners to apply for short-term travel to Australia for tourism or business online for only $20, without having to attend an embassy or high commission.
“From the information we have, the large number [applying for asylum] is due to the fact that Malaysians are taking advantage of Australia’s immigration laws to enable them to stay longer in an unlawful manner,” said a statement from Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, issued in response to Mr Goledzinowski’s interview.
In response to the Ministry’s statement, Mr Goledzinowski tweeted on Sunday he appreciated the “strong statement” from Malaysia.
“Managing the safe and orderly [movement] of people between [Australia and Malaysia] is in the interest of both countries,” he said.
According to James Chin, director of the Asia Institute Tasmania, many Malaysians in Australia, the UK and South Korea likely overstay their visas because they have found cash-in-hand work.
“For many years now there’s been a common belief that in Australia you can earn lots of money doing fruit picking,” he told the ABC.
In July, the ABC reported on an “orchestrated scam” in which increased numbers of Malaysian nationals entered Australia on electronic visitor visas then applied for protection visas to stay longer.
It was reported that Border Force officials denied entry to more than 20 Malaysians at Australian airports each week.
This represents almost one third of all removals, even though Malaysia provides fewer than one in 20 tourists to Australia.
Between July 2017 and February 2019, 1,779 Malaysians had their visas cancelled before clearing immigration.
Border Force told the ABC that in the first half of 2019, onshore protection visa applications lodged by Malaysians decreased by 30 per cent, as “a result of the Government’s focus on stopping unmeritorious claims.”
While 59 per cent of all applications for protection visas lodged in Australia in 2016-17 came from Malaysian and Chinese citizens alone, only 2 per cent of Malaysian applications were granted.
Malaysia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Marzuki Yahya, told Parliament earlier this year, many Malaysians were drawn to Australia because of higher wages and a “world-class” education system, not because they were being persecuted at home.
While he had heard of one case in which a Malaysian man was granted a protection visa on the basis of being in a homosexual relationship with an Australian man, Mr Chin said many Malaysians’ claims for asylum were likely dubious.
“For the Chinese Malaysians and Indian Malaysians, they will claim that the Government has its Bumiputera policy, that this is racial discrimination.”
Since the 1970s, Malaysia has controversially implemented policies that provide privileges to the ethnic Malay-Muslim majority, including affirmative action in the public service and higher education.
Mr Chin said while the policies may be discriminatory, it would be difficult to prove it was targeted persecution, as required for refugee status under law.
The ABC reported in September last year, criminal syndicates were exploiting the lax visa arrangements between the two countries.
People smugglers have also been known to provide fake Malaysian travel documents, for example to Vietnamese nationals, to allow them to travel to Australia and apply for asylum.
Mr Goledzinowski nevertheless maintained Malaysians should continue to have access to the ETA application system.
“I don’t think going back to paper applications would be a step forward,” he said.
“I think Malaysians, by and large, appreciate the online application. I think it would be good to maintain that.”
The Department of Home Affairs had not yet responded to the ABC’s request for comment at time of publication.