BRENDAN TREMBATH: The Australian Government is under renewed attack today over its plan to send 800 unprocessed asylum seekers to Malaysia.

The Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has indicated today she’ll push to amend the Migration Act. If she succeeds the Federal Government will have to gain Parliament’s permission before sending asylum seekers to a third country.

The so-called Malaysian solution has angered human rights groups and refugee advocates. They say that because Malaysia is not a signatory to the refugee convention, asylum seekers have no legal status in the country and are vulnerable to exploitation, arbitrary arrest and trafficking.

Renuka Balasubramaniam is a director with Lawyers for Liberty in Malaysia. She’s in Sydney for the 2011 Refugee Convention at the University of New South Wales. She explained to me why she opposes the Government’s plan.

RENUKA BALASUBRAMANIAM: Malaysia has not signed on to the refugee convention and therefore it has no international legal obligations and rather it thinks it has no international legal obligations to provide any kind of protection to asylum seekers or registered refugees.

There is an arrangement between UNHCR and the Malaysian government to render a sort of protection in the sense that they will not be deported so long as they have been granted status by UNHCR and then the Malaysia government cooperates with the UNHCR to ensure their resettlement.

But apart from that there really aren’t any other protections. There is no right to work. There is no medical care, no insurance or social security.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: So these people are effectively in limbo. Who looks after them then?

RENUKA BALASUBRAMANIAM: They try to eke out a living by making ends meet with whatever work they can get. But given the fact that most Malaysian employers are fully aware that they do not have work permits they’re susceptible to exploitation.

Very often we have cases of refugees who have worked and not been paid, who have suffered injuries or death while at work and not found any kind of redress. They are constantly victims of extortion by not just the authorities but also members of the public or criminals.

For those who get arrested post-detention in immigration detention camps due to the fact that they usually do not have the means to pay for their deportation, they will be sent to the Thai border.

And at the Thai border there have been cases of human trafficking. And the way it works is that those who cannot afford to pay for their own releases have to work to pay off their so-called debt and are sometimes sold to brothels.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: What concerns do you have about the Australian arrangement with Malaysia given that Malaysia has not ratified the refugee convention and the people who end up in Malaysia are undocumented workers?

RENUKA BALASUBRAMANIAM: The biggest concern would be the fact that number one Malaysia has no legally binding obligations. And then there’s Malaysia’s history to look at.

Malaysia has on numerous occasions given assurances to civil society in Malaysia that for example the refugees would be given the right to work or that they would not be prosecuted for illegal entry or that they would be protected from corporal punishment which is discretionary for those convicted of illegal entry.

But none of these assurances have been delivered on. And there’s a very good reason for that. There is no administrative or regulatory infrastructure that might enable the Malaysian government to deliver on those assurances.

And this is our greatest concern. Regardless of any arrangement or assurance that they might give to the Australian Government, short of a major revamp in the way that Malaysia looks at migration and the Immigration Act – I might add that the Immigration Act currently is more than 40 years old.

So short of these major structural changes to laws and policies I just don’t see how the government would be able to live up to its agreement to Australia.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Renuka Balasubramaniam, a director with Lawyers for Liberty in Malaysia speaking to me earlier.