The swap deal, first announced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen nearly three months ago, means Australia will send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia and accept 4,000 verified refugees in return.
Key points of the agreement:
- Those sent to Malaysia will be given rights to work, health care and education, unlike the 90,000 refugees already there
- Asylum seekers already on Christmas Island will be processed in Australia, but any arrivals from midnight tonight will come under the new arrangement
- Once the scheme is fully up and running, they will be transferred to Malaysia within 72 hours
- Transferred asylum seekers will receive no preferential treatment in the processing of their claims
She says the agreement addresses concerns held by Australian officials that the 90,000 asylum seekers already in Malaysia do not have access to health and education services.
“Those sent to Malaysia will be treated with dignity and respect in accordance with human rights,” she said.
“They will not be subject to any of the penalties imposed on illegal entrants – that means they will not be arrested and will not be caned.”
Arrivals will be subject to pre-transfer assessments to ensure fitness and suitability for transfer.
But the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission says she has serious concerns about the Government’s deal.
Catherine Branson QC says the safeguards contained in the agreement kick in too late and she doubts their effectiveness.
Ms Branson says she is particularly worried that people will be assessed for vulnerability only after they have been sent to Malaysia.
“We have in mind, children, particularly unaccompanied, people who’ve been subject to torture and trauma, people who might need mental health or physical health care,” she said.
“As we understand in the agreement their assessment for vulnerability will take place after they arrive in Malaysia. We’re very strongly of the view it should take place before they leave Australia.”
The Commission says despite the intended safeguards in the deal, there remains a risk that those who are sent to Malaysia will be mistreated.
“Vulnerable people should not be being moved around the globe from place to place,” she said.
“They should be assessed quickly for vulnerability and once they are assessed the appropriate care and support should be put in place. We can be much more confident that we can do it here and it would spare them unnecessary trips.”
InconsistentAnd the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees says the deal is inconsistent with the practice of allowing asylum seekers to be processed in the country in which they arrive.
The UNHCR says the preference has always been an arrangement which would allow asylum seekers arriving into Australian territory to be processed in Australia.
Nevertheless, they say the final agreement is an improvement from earlier proposals.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says the deal fails to guarantee the human rights of people moved offshore.
“Australia is a signatory to the refugee convention, and yet what we see here under this arrangement is Australia doing everything it can to shirk that responsibility and at the exorbitant cost to Australian taxpayers,” she said.
She says the deal is short on detail.
“This deal is still very unclear as to what types of protections will be offered to these people that we expel to Malaysia,” she said.
“The details should have been in the agreement. Verbal assurances mean nothing in this circumstance.”
But the Immigration Minister says the transferred refugees will carry identification ensuring they will be allowed to work within Malaysia.
“The arrangement is very clear. And the people transferred from Australian to Malaysia will have identification documents which make it clear that they are permitted to be in Malaysia, that the law in relation to illegal migrants does not apply to them,” Mr Bowen said.
“And the Malaysian government has issued clear instructions to its law enforcement authorities that these people are transferred with the agreement of the Malaysian government and they are to be dealt with accordingly. “
Policy failureThe plan has also drawn the ire of the other side of politics, with Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison saying it is an admission of policy failure.
“This Government clearly believes their policies are wrong and they’ve sought to change those policies,” he said.
Mr Morrison has dismissed the Government’s claims the deal is a regional solution to people smuggling.
“This is a one-off bilateral deal with a use-by date of 800 transferees, now if everybody who had turned up since this deal was announced (was included), this deal would almost be over before it began,” he said.
“Australia will bear all the costs associated with this arrangement, every last cent.”
But Ms Gillard says the deal would send a strong warning.
“This is a ground-breaking agreement which is designed to smash the business model of people smugglers,” she said.
And Mr Bowen has defended the Government’s decision to process the 500 asylum seekers who have arrive since the deal was announced in Australia.
The Government had previously maintained those asylum seekers would be processed offshore, but Mr Bowen says problems in Papua New Guinea forced the Government to change its mind.
“We have had to adjust our position there. That was an important thing to say and it was the appropriate thing to say with the information we had available to us at that time,” he said.
“It’s now clear that not only Malaysia, but the discussions we’ve been in with Papua New Guinea have taken longer than it might have been expected they would, therefore the only appropriate and reasonable thing to do is to process those people in Australia.”
Mr Bowen says he only decided the to process the earlier arrivals in Australia shortly before he left for Kuala Lumpur.
Ms Gillard says the deal will be accompanied by a communications strategy aimed at ensuring asylum seekers know they will be sent to Malaysia if they try to come to Australia.
Source: ABC News, July 25, 2011