By LIZ GOOCH
Published: July 25, 2011
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Australia and Malaysia signed a refugee-swapping agreement on Monday that aims to stem the flow of asylum seekers to Australia’s shores. Although the plan promises that the migrants Australia will send to Malaysia will have more rights than the migrants already here, it has failed to satisfy refugee advocates, who accuse Australia of abandoning its international obligations.
Under the arrangement, 800 migrants who have arrived illegally in Australia by boat will be sent to Malaysia, where their refugee claims will be processed by the United Nations. In return, Australia will accept 4,000 United Nations-certified refugees from Malaysia over the next four years.
The people Australia sends to Malaysia will enjoy rights denied to the more than 94,000 registered asylum seekers and refugees now here. For example, they will be able to work and have access to education and health care.
Rights advocates, however, say that Australia risks violating its obligations under the United Nations refugee convention because Malaysia is not a party to the convention and has a poor record in its treatment of refugees, with many of them living in cramped conditions for years awaiting resettlement in another country.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said all asylum seekers should be allowed to work and have access to education and medical care. “Australia is using Malaysia as a dumping ground for boat people it does not want, and in the process walking away from its commitments to follow the 1951 Refugees Convention,” Mr. Robertson said.
Irene Fernandez, executive director of a support group for migrants, Tenaganita, based in Kuala Lumpur, said allowing asylum seekers sent from Australia to work and attend school discriminated against those already living in Malaysia. “What Australia should have done is to push Malaysia to ratify the convention, and then you are assured of protection of rights for all refugees,” Ms. Fernandez said.
Under the new plan, asylum seekers who arrive illegally in Australia by boat after midnight Monday may be sent to Malaysia for processing. They will be held in a transit center for up to 45 days before being released into the community.
Most of the asylum seekers who arrive in Australia are from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka and usually travel to Australia via Malaysia or Indonesia.
Hishammuddin Hussein, the Malaysian minister of home affairs, said the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which assesses refugee claims in Kuala Lumpur, and the International Organization for Migration would help ensure that migrants’ rights were protected. “I can give you an assurance on behalf of the Malaysian government that all those involved will be treated with dignity,” he said.
The Australian government, which will foot the bill for the program, estimated to cost $316 million, has said that since the outlines of the plan were announced in May there have been fewer asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat than during the same period last year.
“This is an arrangement which sends a very clear signal that Malaysia and Australia are serious about stopping people-smuggling,” said Chris Bowen, the Australian immigrationminister.
The United Nations office said that although it always preferred to have asylum seekers who arrived in Australia processed there, the new deal included important safeguards, including access to education and jobs and protection from arbitrary detention.
“The critical test of this arrangement will now be in its implementation both in Australia and Malaysia, particularly the protection and vulnerability assessment procedures under which asylum seekers will be assessed in Australia prior to any transfer taking place,” the United Nations office said in a statement