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Asylum swap deal: Ratify first, arrange later

July 28, 2011

FMT LETTER

From Andika Wahab, via e-mail

Today, July 28, 2011, will mark the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention – the first and main international agreement that protects the fundamental rights of refugees across the world. 142 nations have ratified the convention. This number does not include Malaysia.

On Monday, 25th June 25, 2011, the Australian and Malaysian governments together signed the controversial asylum swap deal. The deal to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in return for 4,000 recognised refugees to Australia comes into effect immediately at midnight.

As a human rights organisation, Suaram strongly condemns the decision to continue the deal, which has been by various quarters including the UN as well as Malaysian and Australian activists.

Suaram is of the view that this is a gross denial of freedom and the right to seek asylum in Australia, a country that is signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Suaram rejects the elucidation that this deal would be a win-win situation for the both governments and a total loss for the smugglers.

What about the subjects involved (asylum seekers or transferees)? Do the governments believe this deal will benefit them (asylum seekers)? Do they think this deal will confine asylum seekers to a boat sailing to Australia? This deal does not meet its justification of stopping human trafficking and the smuggling business model.

Suaram believes that the failure to take into consideration human rights principles is the most crucial and overlooked element in the arrangement. Poor human rights protection has been encouraging asylum seekers to flee from Malaysia and sometimes use whatever means they deem necessary to seek protection.

Both governments must respect the rights of all individuals seeking asylum in Australia and not gamble their fates by transferring them to Malaysia, a country that has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention. The failure to look into human rights principles may lead to the failure to consider those on the losing end: the asylum seekers who will be transferred to Malaysia.

Ministers Hishamuddin Hussein and his Australian counterpart, Chris Bowen had both officially signed the agreement promising that the 800 asylum seekers will be treated with “dignity” and “respect”. This included their rights to work, access to education and health care, and freedom to move. At the same time, the details of the agreement do not ensure any concrete proposal to enforce the guarantees and promises made by the ministers.

If the official arrangement does not guarantee concrete protection to the 800 asylum seekers, how can a verbal commitment claim to ensure concrete protection to the 800? We believe that these 800 asylum seekers will melt into the 100,000 refugees who suffer and sufer almost “zero” tolerance and fundamental rights protection.

Until now, Malaysia has showed no intention of ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Yet Malaysia is interested getting involved with refugee-related arrangements  such as the asylum swap.

Malaysia maintains a blanket policy that all undocumented migrants including refugees and asylum seekers are considered illegal migrants. As such, they can be arrested, deported, and even punished by judicial caning under the immigration act.

Suaram urges the Malaysian government to first ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and/or at least to develop an effective domestic act and administrative mechanisms before dealing with any arrangements regarding refugees and asylum seekers.

Suaram launched its campaign to urge the Malaysian government to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention in May 2011. In conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the convention today, we once again urge the government to ratify it in order to provide legal protection and promotion of the fundamental rights of the refugees in accordance with internationally recognised legal and humanitarian standards.

Ratification would also demonstrate the Malaysian government’s commitment for genuine “burden sharing” in handling global issues: Developing effective administration and cooperation with UNHCR, reducing the capacity of immigration detention centres, as well as supporting the lack of human resources in various domestic sectors in Malaysia.

The writer is refugee coordinator of  Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram)


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