Australia said it remained committed to sending asylum-seekers to Malaysia for processing and insisted it is not necessary for Kuala Lumpur to be a signatory to the UN refugee convention.
Canberra last year clinched a deal to send 800 boatpeople to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 of that country’s registered refugees as a deterrent to people paying smugglers to make the dangerous maritime voyage to Australia,
The plan was scotched in the High Court and was also opposed in the Australian parliament, which insists asylum-seekers should only be sent to countries that have signed the UN refugee convention. Malaysia has not.
But with Australia facing a record influx of boatpeople this year – more than 13,500 since January 1 – and an offshore camp in Nauru filling up fast, Foreign Minister Bob Carr said the plan needed to be revisited.
Carr was in Malaysia this week and said the government in Kuala Lumpur remained committed to the deal and deserved credit instead of criticism for how they had dealt with asylum-seekers.
“I confirm that we will continue to adhere to our commitment to take 4,000 refugees over four years,” he told ABC television late on Tuesday.
“The Malaysians could do without some of the bad-mouthing of their eminently good reputation that occurred when the matter was last debated (in parliament). Their sincerity on this can’t be doubted,” he added.
He pointed out that Malaysia had about 100,000 refugees and around two million illegal workers.
“So they feel great pressure but they deserve praise for taking an enlightened and an innovative approach to this problem, which affects the whole region, of people-smuggling,” he said.
Carr acknowledged that Malaysia was no closer to signing the UN convention but said: “It’s very silly if that’s a stumbling block.
“As Malaysia sees it, they have two million illegal workers, they have 100,000 refugees, they’re dealing with this and they can deal with it without signing the convention,” he said.
“We were more than happy with the assurances that they gave us when we negotiated the arrangement with them.”
Following the collapse of the so-called Malaysia people swap deal, Canberra decided to send boatpeople to Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Those sent to Nauru have been warned it could be years before their claims for asylum are processed and around 300 of them are in the seventh day of a hunger strike, according to refugee activists.
The men, mostly from Sri Lanka but also from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, claim being on the remote island is affecting them physically and mentally.