KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia and Australia sealed a pact Monday, July 25, to swap refugees in a contentious new strategy aimed at deterring asylum seekers from undertaking perilous boat journeys to Australia.
The deal will see Australia send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia over the next four years in exchange for Australia resettling 4,000 registered refugees currently languishing in this Southeast Asian nation.
Both governments announced the deal in May but were forced to fine-tune it amid objections by opposition politicians in their countries and human rights groups that criticize the treatment of about 93,000 refugees now living in Malaysia, which has not signed the U.N. Convention on Refugees.
Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein and Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen signed the agreement at a Kuala Lumpur hotel, where about 15 opposition-backed activists gathered to protest the plan.
Hishammuddin pledged that asylum seekers sent to Malaysia would be treated according to the U.N. refugee agency’s international standards. They will be placed at a processing center for six weeks before being allowed to live in public.
“The allegation that Malaysia is not fair toward refugees in this country is completely untrue,” Hishammuddin said.
Most of the refugees now in Malaysia are Myanmarese people who fled persecution in their country.
They are not officially allowed to work or go to school, but most do so illegally, risking detention and whippings with a rattan cane if they are caught.
Australia has long drawn people from poor, often war-ravaged places hoping to start a new life, with more than 6,200 asylum seekers arriving by boat last year. Most are from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq, and they use Malaysia or Indonesia as a transit point for traveling to Australia.
Australian authorities say the deal with Malaysia is meant to send a message to potential asylum seekers that it will not accept any more of them. ♦