Australia and Malaysia have signed a refugee-swapping agreement that aims to stem the flow of asylum seekers to Australia. However, the move has prompted criticism from human rights advocates.
800 illegal migrants or asylum seekers in Australia will be sent to Malaysia. In return, Australia will take 4,000 UN-certified refugees from Malaysia over the next four years.
The refugees sent to Malaysia will be able to work, and will enjoy access to services such as education and health care, rights currently denied to the 93,000 registered asylum seekers already in Malaysia.
The Australian government will pay the full $316 million cost for the transfers.
Commenting on the deal in Canberra, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the deal would "smash the business model of people smugglers".
Report: Australia and Malaysia sign refugee swap agreement [BBC News, 25 July 2011]
But human rights groups have objected to the agreement.
Amnesty International has raised concerns that asylum seekers are routinely mistreated in Malaysia. Amnesty says refugees are "frequently caged in appalling conditions, exploited and caned".
Most of the refugees now in Malaysia are Myanmarese people who fled persecution in their country. They usually survive on odd jobs but are not officially allowed to work or attend public schools. If arrested as illegal immigrants, they risk being caned by authorities.
A spokesman for Human Rights Watch said “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 the [UN] 1951 Refugees Convention."
Malaysia is not a party to the convention.
But Malaysia's Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who signed the deal in Kuala Lumpur with his Australian counterpart Chris Bowen, said asylum seekers would be treated according to the UN refugee agency's international standards.
"The allegation that Malaysia is not fair toward refugees in this country is completely untrue," he said.
Ms Gillard also stressed that the asylum seekers would be treated properly.
"To ensure the welfare of the asylum seekers transferred, there will be an overseeing committee that will include members of the UNHCR [UN refugee agency]," she said.
However, the UNHCR said in a statement it would prefer Australia to deal with migrants on its own territory.
Report: Australia and Malaysia Sign a Refugee Swap Deal [New York Times, 25 July 2011]
The issue of asylum seekers has proved highly controversial for successive Australian governments.
Australia has long drawn people from poor, often war-ravaged places hoping to start a new life. Most are from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq, and use Malaysia or Indonesia as a transit point for traveling to Australia.
Australia currently has more than 6,000 asylum seekers in detention. Migrants are held for months at the Christmas Island centre, about 1,500 miles (2,400km) from the Australian mainland, and in other facilities.
Last week, refugee claimants held at the Christmas Island detention centre staged several nights of protests to demand better conditions and treatment. Police fired tear gas and shock grenades to quell the riot.
Australian media has also reported in recent days a mass hunger strike at a Queensland detention centre, a roof-top protest at Darwin's detention centre, and the interception of another boat carrying 47 asylum seekers off the Australian coast.
Report and Analysis: Malaysia, Australia sign refugee exchange pact [Associated Press, 25 July 2011]