Australia and Malaysia seal refugee ‘solution’

A controversial agreement between Australia and Malaysia to exchange thousands refugees over the coming four years has been officially signed, and will come into force as of 1 August.

Despite protestations from refugee monitoring groups across the Asia-Pacific, Australia’s immigration minister Chris Bowen met with Malaysian interior minister Hishammuddin Hussein on Monday in Kuala Lumpur to formalise the deal, which Australia hopes will deter asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

As of Monday next week, the next 800 so-called ‘boatpeople’ will not be processed in Australia, as was the case before, but instead sent to holding centres in Malaysia for registration. In return, Malaysia will send 4,000 refugees to Australia.

The main area of criticism has centred on the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, which is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Despite being coined the ‘Malaysia Solution’, rights groups warn it could exacerbate the suffering of those sent to Malaysia.

In a letter sent last month to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Human Rights Watch warned that asylum seekers and refugees in the country “continue to experience egregious treatment”, and said it was “gravely concerned” about the agreement with Australia.

“Malaysian law allows caning of ‘illegal migrants’ – which in Malaysia includes asylum seekers – as punishment for immigration offenses and is commonplace. Conditions in immigration detention centres fail to satisfy basic international human rights standards and expose detainees to physical abuse, degrading conditions, and health risks.”

Andrew Carr, a staff member at Australias’s Lowy Institute for International Policy, said in a recent article that while he thought the deal was “good policy”, it rested on a number of tenuous assumptions, including the claim by the government that it will deter future asylum seekers from arriving in Australia.

Bowen said in May that the plan’s main message to refugees was: “Don’t get on that boat”. He said that it also apparently conveyed Australia’s “resolve to break the people smugglers’ business model and the trade in human misery that they rely on”, although little elaboration was given on precisely how the deal would break this business model.

The signing of the deal may be met with surprise by some, particularly following a warning from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, that Australia’s sending of refugees to a country not bound by international conventions would likely violate refugee laws.

Australia’s parliament also rejected the deal, although the vote was seen as largely symbolic and has clearly had no impact on the outcome of events.

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