Thursday, June 16, 2011

Australia seeks UN agency nod to seal Malaysia refugee swap

KUALA LUMPUR, June 16 — Australia has quietly sent a delegation to win critical support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) over its controversial plan to swap refugees with Malaysia, Melbourne’s The Age reported today.

The newspaper reported that Canberra’s planned refugee swap deal with Putrajaya has run into “a potentially serious snag, with the United Nations refugee agency failing to give its immediate blessing”.

“UNHCR endorsement of the so-called ‘Malaysia solution’ will be critical for the government to secure backbench support and to counter suggestions that the deal will abrogate Australia’s human rights and child protection responsibilities,” the newspaper said today.

Malaysia is not a signatory to UN refugee covenant but UNHCR offices in Canberra and Kuala Lumpur have signalled their readiness to endorse a deal on the grounds “it would improve protection for refugees in Malaysia and provide a basis for regional co-operation”, the paper added.

Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has also assured Labor’s Left that the UNHCR is on board, and had been expected to announce a deal this week, the paper said.

“But it is understood that the UNHCR’s Geneva head office is being extra cautious about the deal. It wants guarantees, for example, that none of the asylum seekers will be returned to their countries of origin against their will.

“An informed source said ‘purists’ in Geneva were taking extra time before giving UNHCR endorsement. Malaysian officials had also been dispatched to Geneva to promote the final memorandum of understanding,” the newspaper reported.

Australia is expected to fund an expanded presence for the UNHCR in Malaysia as a sweetener.
The Age said it was made to understand that UNHCR officials from Geneva will fly to Malaysia in coming days for briefings with authorities to assist their decision-making.

‘‘Discussions around the proposed [deal] raise important principles of refugee protection that need to be carefully assessed,’’ a spokesman for the UNHCR Canberra representative, Richard Towle, said. ‘‘UNHCR remains actively involved in those discussions.’’

The newspaper reported that the fact that the deal commits Australia to taking 4,000 refugees from Malaysia in exchange for the transfer to Malaysia of 800 asylum seekers who arrive by boat in Australian waters is seen as a positive by some UNHCR officials as it raises Australia’s overall intake of refugees.

Under the deal, the asylum seekers sent from Australia to Kuala Lumpur will spend an initial period in a processing centre undergoing health and identity checks.

They will then be issued UNHCR cards that confirm they are not illegal immigrants and will live in the community as they wait years for UNHCR processing.

Both countries have not publicly said who the refugees are under the swap deal but The Malaysian Insider understands it could include Iranians, who have been hitting headlines of late on suspicion of being drug mules in Malaysia.

It is expected the deal will see Australia provide funding to the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration to cover the health and education costs of the group, as well as covering all Malaysian government’s costs.

As a sweetener, Australia is expected to fund an expanded presence for the UNHCR in Malaysia, where the agency struggles to assist and monitor at least 90,000 refugees.

An Australian source played down the Geneva meeting, saying it was inevitable that face-to-face talks at the UNHCR headquarters would be needed to finalise operational details, the daily said.

UNHCR officials had been briefed on the deal from the outset and had always offered qualified support, a source told The Age.

Source: The Malaysian Insider

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