A refugee swap deal between Australia and Malaysia continues to attract criticism, even as both countries’ governments offer assurances that refugees’ rights will be respected.
BANGKOK — While a new refugee swap deal between Australia and Malaysia will offer hope to some of the tens of thousands of Burmese refugees in Malaysia, there are different views on whether the arrangement lives up to international standards.
The “Arrangement on Transfer and Resettlement” was signed in Kuala Lumpur on July 25 by Malaysia’s Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein and Australia’s Immigration and Citizenship Minister Chris Bowen. It will transfer 4,000 refugees in Malaysia to Australia over the next four years, in return for Malaysia taking in 800 asylum-seekers arriving in Australia or interdicted at sea en route to Australia after July 25. Australia will pay for the deal, predicted to cost around US $325million over the current four-year implementation timetable, with Australia already saying the deal could be expanded.
As Burmese nationals make up an estimated 80-90 percent of refugees in Malaysia, the deal offers some hope to the small additional percentage that will benefit from the arrangement over the coming four years.
“We are happy that at least some of the people will get the opportunity to have a new life in Australia,” said Simon Sang Hre, who works with the Chin Refugee Committee in Malaysia, assisting what his organization estimates at 42,000 ethnic Chin refugees from Chin State in Burma, speaking to The Irrawaddy by telephone from Kuala Lumpur.
However, there are mixed feelings about the deal. Latheefa Koya, an adviser to Lawyers for Liberty, a Malaysian NGO, told The Irrawaddy that “the thousands of refugees, mostly Burmese, who have yet to be registered with the UN Refugee Agency cannot benefit.”
Of particular concern are Burmese Rohingya fleeing persecution in western Burma, where they are denied citizenship and although they can register as refugees in Malaysia, adds Latheefa Koya. “This deal is unlikely to benefit the Rohingya in Malaysia as they don’t fit the profile of those who are likely to be accepted by Australia. Many have been here for 10-20 years,” she said.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Malaysia, there are some 94,400 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the organization. Of these “86,500 are from Myanmar [Burma], comprising some 35,600 Chins, 21,400 Rohingyas, 10,100 Myanmar Muslims, 3,800 Mon, 3,400 Kachins and other ethnicities from Myanmar.” UNCHR says that there are around 10,000 unregistered asylum-seekers or refugees in Malaysia, though some NGOs believe there are tens of thousands of unregistered refugees.
Others have criticized the deal as flawed due to Malaysia’s refusal to sign up to international refugee laws. In a statement issued in response to the signing of the Australia-Malaysia deal, Australia’s Human Rights Commission President Catherine Branson said that “while the Commission recognized the need for regional and international cooperation on asylum seekers and supported the resettling in Australia of an increased number of refugees,” she was “concerned that Malaysia was not a signatory to the Refugee Convention.”
According to Bill Frelick, refugee program director at Human Rights Watch, the deal should not have been signed, as “the gap in the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers between Australia and Malaysia remains enormous.”
A March 2011 survey of over 1,000 refugees in Malaysia by the Health Equity and Initiatives in March of this year found that 70 percent of the interviewees showed symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress as a result of human trafficking, forced labor and unemployment.
However, the Australian government claims the deal will not result in any abuses of the 800 to be sent to Malaysia. According to a July 25 press statement by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Minister Bowen, “The arrangement reaffirms Malaysia’s commitment that transferees will be treated with dignity and respect in accordance with human rights standards, that it will respect the principle of non-refoulement, the key tenet of the Refugee Convention, and that asylum claims will be considered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)”.
Yante Ismail, a spokesperson for UNHCR Malaysia, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that “UNHCR assesses that the final Arrangement and its implementing guidelines contain these safeguards, and are workable.”
However, even the positive aspects of the deal are being criticized for potentially creating a two-tier system. Once the 800 arrivals are processed, they will receive benefits that the the 94,400 registered refugees in Malaysia do not get, such as work rights and access to education and health care.
There are suggestions that refugees currently in Malaysia are considering paying smugglers to take them to Australia by sea, so they could avail of the deal and be returned to Malaysia under better conditions.
Australia’s government has touted the deal as an antidote to people smuggling and human trafficking. However, Australia’s opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the government had signed a flawed deal, adding that “no doubt more holes will emerge, as the deal was conceived in desperation and panic,” he said in comments to Australian Associated Press.
Thousands of refugees from Burma, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and other war-torn countries attempt the long and risky maritime journey to Australia every year. For the past decade, successive Australian governments, starting with the administration led by Morrison’s Liberals, have sought a “Pacific Solution” to the refugees arriving by sea, saying facilities in Australia are overloaded.
Australia’s Department of Immigration says that 134 boats carrying 6,535 people arrived in 2010, with more than 1,000 boat people arriving so far this year. Holding centers on the mainland and also the main center on Australia’s Christmas Island are full or nearly full, according to the Australian government. In 2010, Australia unsuccessfully approached Timor Leste about opening a processing center on the island for asylum seekers trying to reach Australia. Canberra is currently in talks with Papua New Guinea about re-opening another asylum-seekers holding center on Manus Island, off the north Papuan coast.