News / Asia

Australia Okays Controversial Refugee Swap Deal With Malaysia

Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, foreground left, and Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, foreground right, sign documents to swap refugees between the two countries, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 25, 2011
Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, foreground left, and Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, foreground right, sign documents to swap refugees between the two countries, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 25, 2011
Phil Mercer

Australia and Malaysia are going ahead with a plan to exchange asylum seekers for refugees. Representatives of the two Asian nations signed the deal Monday in Kuala Lumpur. It is part of Australia's plan to develop a regional solution to human trafficking. But the plan is not without controversy.

Under the agreement, Australia will initially send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia for processing, in exchange for four thousand refugees who have had their cases for resettlement approved.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard described the agreement as “ground-breaking,” saying it would “smash the business model” of people smugglers.  

The premise is that traffickers will no longer be able to guarantee their fee-paying clients direct passage to Australia, thus decreasing the flow of unauthorized arrivals.

Australia has long attracted people from poor, often war-ravaged regions. More than 6,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat last year. Most are from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq, and use Malaysia or Indonesia as a transit point for traveling to Australia.

Prime Minister Gillard says no group will be exempt from the scheme, not even young children, pregnant women or the elderly.

“Let me say it again. There is [sic] no blanket exemptions," she said. "There will be an assessment process here and we have through this agreement worked to have special levels of support available for people who might have particular issues in Malaysia but there are no blanket exemptions.”

The plan, however, has angered rights groups.  

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said both governments are using the plan for their own purposes.

"The problem is Australia is using Malaysia as a dumping ground for boat people it doesn't want.  In the process, they're actually walking away from its commitments to follow the 1951 Refugee Convention," said Robertson. "And we think that for Malaysia, this is a sort of money talks [profit-oriented] kind of deal, and for Australia, it's a desperate move by a government with falling poll numbers seeking political traction on the backs of vulnerable people seeking refuge."

Amnesty International also criticized the plan, saying asylum seekers sent to Malaysia could face inhumane detention conditions.

Malaysia has not signed the United Nations Refugee Convention, nor has it ratified the UN Convention against Torture.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has not approved the deal between Australia and Malaysia.

Authorities in Kuala Lumpur have insisted the asylum seekers will be well treated. The arrangement will allow Malaysia to reduce the number of refugees currently living there, a figure currently estimated at around 93,000 people.

There is opposition too in Australia. About 200 demonstrators marched to an immigration detention center in Sydney on Sunday to protest the accord with Malaysia.

Australia grants visas to about 13,000 refugees each year under various international programs.

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