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Labor’s blank cheque for Malaysian refugee deal

July 25th, 2011 Australia

AUSTRALIA has undertaken to pay and care for the 800 asylum-seekers transferred under its refugee swap with Kuala Lumpur for as long as they remain in Malaysia, potentially extending Canberra’s liability well beyond the four-year life span of the agreement.

Labor's blank cheque for Malaysian refugee dealAs Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Dato Seri Hishammuddin bin Tun Hussein lauded an “innovative and bold arrangement”, the Gillard government was forced into a humiliating backdown on the 568 asylum-seekers it had vowed to transfer overseas.

Mr Bowen said yesterday the 568 would be processed in Australia, defying a pledge he gave two months ago that anyone who arrived after the initial announcement of the deal would be sent to a third country.

Mr Bowen said the uncertain political situation in Papua New Guinea where the government had initially hoped to send the people was the main reason for the reversal.

Mr Bowen said the deal with Kuala Lumpur – under which Australia will send 800 boat arrivals to Malaysia in the next four years and in return resettle 4000 refugees from Malaysia – repudiated the “doubters” who said such an arrangement could not be done. “This is an arrangement that sends a very clear signal that Malaysia and Australia are serious about stopping people-smuggling,” he said. “As Immigration Minister, I hope I never get another call telling me that people have drowned trying to make it to Australia and that children as young as two months old have drowned trying to come to Australia.”

His comments were echoed by Mr Hishammuddin. “The targets, and the people we really want to send a clear message (to) are the syndicates who are profiting on innocent people,” he said.

While Tony Abbott attacked the deal as “a terrible confession of failure” by the government, Julia Gillard said it would “smash the people-smugglers’ business model”.

The Prime Minister told would-be refugees planning to come to Australia by boat not to risk their own lives or those of their families. “Do not do that in the false hope that you will be able to have your claim processed in Australia,” she said.

The deal places onerous conditions on Australia, which must meet almost all of the costs associated with the transfer, care and processing of asylum-seekers, no matter where they are to be sent.

Mr Bowen said the government had budgeted for $296 million over the four years, although he said Australia would continue to cover the costs of asylum-seekers who remained in Malaysia after the deal elapsed.

He said Australia’s financial obligations could extend beyond the four-year period of the agreement, but he said the costs would be “modest” and noted they would have work rights, meaning they could support themselves.

Contrary to expectations, the deal came with no explicit endorsement from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which was intimately involved in ensuring certain protections were included in the deal and which will process the asylum claims of the 800.

In a tartly worded statement issued by its head office in Geneva, the UNHCR said it noted the deal. “UNHCR is not a signatory to the arrangement; however, it appreciates that both governments have consulted with the office,” the statement said. “UNHCR’s preference has always been an arrangement which would enable all asylum-seekers arriving by boat into Australian territory to be processed in Australia. This would be consistent with general practice.”

The agreement includes the creation of an advisory committee – including representatives of the Malaysian and Australian governments and, it is hoped, officials from the International Organisation for Migration and UNHCR – to provide advice and assistance on its implementation. But Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the government was shirking its international obligations by sending asylum-seekers to a country that had not signed the UN Refugee Convention.

Under the four-year deal, which was signed by both ministers in Kuala Lumpur yesterday, anyone who arrived in Australia by boat from midnight last night will be subject to transfer to Malaysia, provided they meet Malaysian security standards.

The deal will not be backdated, meaning it will not affect boatpeople already in Australia – 521 on Christmas Island and 47 on a boat intercepted on Saturday.

Malaysia has undertaken not to “refoule”, or return refugees to their country of origin, one of the key demands of Australia and the UNHCR, unless they commit a serious criminal offence that threatens the local community.

Once the arrangement is operating at full tempo, asylum-seekers will be sent to Kuala Lumpur within 72 hours of their arrival in Australia. Once there, they will be held for up to 45 days in a network of secure “transit facilities” – essentially boarding houses and hostels. In a clear sign the deal has been hurried and that all of the operational details have yet to be nailed down, Mr Bowen told The Australian that those facilities were not yet up and running and leases had not yet been signed.

Mr Bowen declined to say when the first asylum-seekers would be sent to Malaysia, but indicated it would be weeks.

Under the deal, asylum-seekers transferred to Malaysia will be subject to an “exemption order” from Malaysian immigration law, a move both governments say will ensure their legal status is lawful. They will be given special identity cards, which will be jointly issued by the Australian and Malaysian governments. The detail is considered important and will go some way to placating critics of the deal, who claim asylum-seekers in Malaysia are subject to abuse and arbitrary arrest at the hands of local authorities.

Ms Gillard said the asylum-seekers transferred to Malaysia would be treated with dignity and respect and would not be subject to any of the penalties imposed on illegal entrants: “They will not be arrested and not be caned.”

The deal is a major win for the 94,000 mostly Burmese refugees currently in Malaysia, an extra 4000 of whom are now eligible for permanent residency in Australia. The move increases Australia’s overall annual humanitarian intake to 14,750 places.

The Gillard government has taken effective responsibility for returning – by force if necessary – asylum-seekers transferred to Malaysia who fail their refugee tests. “We will certainly play a substantial role in that and that’s appropriate. We’re the ones with the experience,” Mr Bowen said.

Reintegration packages will be offered by the IOM to asylum-seekers who choose to return to their country of origin – a sign both governments expect some of the transferred asylum-seekers to leave Malaysia.

On the question of unaccompanied minors, Mr Bowen repeated his refusal to give a “blanket exemption” for children, who will be subject to transfer. However, it is widely expected that very vulnerable asylum-seekers, such as young children, will not be sent to Malaysia and will be dealt with under “special procedures”.