PETALING JAYA: Local NGOs agreed with the Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) that Australia’s plan to send boat people to Malaysia could be illegal.

High Commissioner Navi Pillay was quoted in the Australian media today as saying that the refugee swap would be against the law since Malaysia was not a signatory of the conventions to protect refugees and therefore would not protect their rights.

“The OHCHR’s statement further clarifies that it is illegal for another country to move refugees to another country that has yet to rectify refugee and other conventions. It (the swap) is totally unacceptable,” Tenaganita executive director Irene Fernandez said.

“The only way forward is for the Australian government to stop the deal from going through. Australia has to continue its position on human rights as a signatory party to the Refugee Convention of 1951. There is no other way,” she told FMT.

The Australian government announced this month that it planned to transfer 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia for processing. In return, Australia would accept and resettle, over four years, 4,000 registered refugees currently living in Malaysia. The deal had not been finalised.

The move drew criticism as Malaysia was not a signatory to the Refugee Convention nor had it ratified the UN Convention against Torture. NGOs also pointed out that Malaysia’s poor track record in observing refugee and asylum seekers’ rights, did not guarantee that the 800 asylum seekers would be protected.

However, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein argued that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) were consulted prior to brokering the deal.

Meanwhile, Amnesty Internal Malaysia director Nora Murat said the OHCHR’s stand could not stop both governments from forging ahead with the swap.

“The OHCHR’s power is merely the power to persuade; it is up to the two countries to decide if the deal goes through. Hopefully, the OHCHR’s argument will persuade both governments to reconsider their stand,” she added.

Asked to elaborate on the Malaysian government’s treatment of refugees, she said the situation was far from satisfactory.

“It is obvious from our research that refugees face a difficult situation. They face overcrowded detention centres and whipping. People are still coming in, not just the 800. So we have to look into the situation carefully,” she explained.

She reiterated Amnesty’s call on the Malaysian government to ink the Refugee Convention.

Where will they be kept?

Lawyers for Liberty’s Eric Paulsen said the organisation fully supported the OHCHR’s call and urged the Malaysian government not to implement ad hoc policies but take a more holistic approach by implementing laws that would protect refugees.

“Malaysia has been exposed and well-documented for human rights abuse. The problem is that there is no protection for refugees. They are treated like illegal immigrants and are prone to extortion, jailing and whipping,” he told FMT.

“The government can say the UNHCR-issued registration cards are recognised but inspectors on the ground may not respect them,” he said.

He also questioned where the 800 asylum seekers were going to be kept, pointing out that the processing period itself could take a year or longer.

“Processing can take up to six months, two years or more. You apply for refugee status and wait for it to be processed. Then wait in line to be interviewed. After two or three interviews, you wait to see if it is rejected. If it is rejected, you appeal. This takes more than a year – minimum,” he said.

As for the assurance from the home ministry regarding the 800 asylum seekers, Paulsen said: “These words don’t mean much unless the government makes greater commitment like signing the Refugee Convention.”

Commenting on the issue, UNHCR spokesperson Yante Ismail told FMT that the agency shared the same concern of the OHCHR.

“Although the Australia-Malaysia negotiation is continuing, it is our shared hope and expectation that it contain appropriate safeguards under the Refugee Convention and other human rights instruments,” she said.

Yante added that even if the deal went through, Australia still had “residual responsibilities” to avoid further human right violations.

Tarani Palani | May 24, 2011, Free Malaysia Today