Refugee advocates concerned over Australian plan for asylum seekers

By Brianne Yantz
Impunity Watch Reporter, Oceania

CANBERRA, Australia – Human rights advocates are criticizing the Australian government for its proposed refugee “swap” with Malaysia. The plan, announced May 7, provides for 800 of Australia’s asylum seekers to be transferred to Malaysia for processing, and in return for Australia to accept 4,000 individuals from Malaysia whom the United Nations has certified as refugees.


Child Refugees in Malaysian Detention Center (Photo Courtesy of the Herald Sun)
Child Refugees in Malaysian Detention Center. (Photo Courtesy of the Herald Sun)

Supporters of the agreement argue that the purpose of the plan is to deter unlawful immigration, as thousands of people illegally enter Australia each year.  According to the New York Times, Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, stated the agreement “will be a big blow to those who are involved in the evil trade of people smuggling.”

The two nations have extremely different standards for treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.  Critics of the plan have voiced concerns regarding the welfare of refugees who may be shipped to Malaysia under the agreement.  As a signatory of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, Australia has laws and procedures to protect and ensure civilized treatment of asylum seekers.  Conversely, Malaysia is not a signatory of the Refugee Convention, nor does it have any refugee laws or screening procedures.  Malaysia has also been known to detain asylum seekers under degrading and inhumane conditions.

Bill Frelick, Refugee Program Director at Human Rights Watch, voiced concern that “the Australia-Malaysia deal may encourage governments to shirk their obligations under the Refugee Convention by transferring asylum seekers to countries that have not ratified the convention.”  Appealing to Australia’s legal and ethical obligations, Frelick further stated, “Australia should not unload asylum seekers on a country known to be hostile to refugees.”

Opposition to the plan has grown stronger since it was announced that an undetermined number of unaccompanied children would be among the 800 sent to Malaysia.  Critics contend that sending children to a country that is known to aggressively mistreat refugees goes against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, under which Australia is obliged to act in a child asylum seekers’ best interests.

Concerns run deep for the future safety of these children, particularly the young girls.  In Malaysia there is extensive documentation that unaccompanied females become victims of sexual violence and harassment.  Critics believe the proposed plan will likely subject women seeking asylum in Malaysia to such dangers.

Although the grievances aired have not yet halted negotiations, the United Nations has been highly critical of the proposed agreement and the Australian Senate recently passed a motion calling on the government to abandon the plan.

For more information, please see:

The Australian – Refugees live in a world of fear – June 4, 2011

AP – Australia criticized over child asylum seeker plan – June 2, 2011

BBC News – Australia will send children to Malaysia in asylum deal – June 2, 2011

New York Times – Asian Refugees’ Advocates Worry About Migrant Deal – June 2, 2011

Human Rights Watch – Australia: End Threat of Tawdry Refugee Trade – May 26, 2011

Author: Impunity Watch Archive