Malaysian deal too cushy to be a deterrent to boat people

THE next 800 asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia will be fingerprinted before being flown to Malaysia, where the federal government will pay for a month in a hotel plus a living allowance, under the controversial Malaysian refugee swap agreement signed yesterday.

New transit centres in Kuala Lumpur, where asylum seekers will be processed within 45 days, are expected to be ready in weeks for the first arrivals. Malaysia will have the right to reject any asylum seekers if they are on terrorism lists or have serious criminal convictions. Australia will also screen the 4000 refugees it accepts from Malaysia in return as part of the deal.

Yesterday the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, said asylum seekers would have the right to work in Malaysia, a breakthrough in a country where 95,000 refugees cannot work legally.

Yet he rejected suggestions that the special treatment asylum seekers would receive would encourage refugees to take boats to Australia. "Critics may say asylum seekers transferred from Australia to Malaysia are getting too good a deal," he said. "On the other side, people may say the arrangements aren't strong enough. We've struck a good balance that ensures appropriate protections."

After facing heavy public criticism of his country's treatment of refugees, Malaysia's Home Affairs Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said Malaysia would be judged by the results of the scheme, and was committed to treating refugees with dignity. "The UNHCR will be there to monitor and safeguard the standards that we have set," he said.

Malaysian police officials and representatives of the International Organisation for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees were present at the signing, while a small group of activists and opposition politicians protested outside the hotel.

The UNHCR said in a statement it was not a signatory to the deal and would prefer to see boat arrivals to Australia processed in Australia, but both governments had consulted the organisation. Mr Bowen said there would be no blanket exemption for unaccompanied children but the UNHCR's feedback had shaped the document and the agency would be involved in processing both groups of asylum seekers - unlike the Howard government's so-called Pacific solution.

The deal commits Australia to funding schooling for children, and health costs. But these will be the basic facilities used by refugees in Malaysia.

The Greens condemned the deal.

The opposition spokesman on immigration, Scott Morrison, said the swap sought to counteract the "pull" factors of Labor's previous border protection policy, as a result of which 230 boats had arrived since Labor formed government.

The government also announced a reversal of its position on the 567 asylum seekers who had arrived by boat since the in-principle agreement was announced 11 weeks ago, saying they would now be processed in Australia.

Originally the government said they would be held pending removal to another country, either Malaysia or Papua New Guinea. The government is working to seal a deal with PNG.

To ensure asylum seekers knew of the deal, Ms Gillard said the government would embark on an information campaign in Indonesia and other departure points to raise awareness of the folly of boarding a boat. "Do not do that in the false hope that you will be able to have your claim processed in Australia," she said.


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