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Australian and Malaysian MPs Condemn Asylum Seeker Deal

Lawmakers in Malaysia and Australia have spoken out against a deal between the two countries involving a swap of asylum seekers, with one Malaysian MP expressing doubts about promises from her country's prime minister that refugees coming from Australia will be properly treated.
Under a deal announced on Saturday between Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his Australian counterpart, Julia Gilllard, the next 800 asylum seekers to arrive in Australia will be sent to Malaysia for processing by UN officials, and in return Australia will accept 4,000 refugees—most of them Burmese—waiting in Malaysia for third-country resettlement over the next four years.
The deal is aimed at deterring “boat people,” many of them stateless Rohingya from Burma, from trying to enter Australia to seek asylum. But Australia has come under criticism from rights groups and politicians of both countries because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and has an appalling record of mistreating asylum seekers.
In response to the criticisms, Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told the Australian public broadcaster ABC yesterday that the Malaysian prime minister had made a firm commitment to respect the dignity and humanity of the asylum seekers, and that the agreement will be implemented once it is finally concluded, regardless of possible protests and legal challenges against the plan.
However, Teresa Kok, a Malaysian member of Parliament, said she has no faith whatsoever in Malaysia’s ability to fulfil the prime minister's promise and that mistreatment of refugees in Malaysia, including harassment, extortion and violence, by RELA, an officially sanctioned vigilante group, have been well documented and yet the Malaysian government remains in denial of it.
“[The agreement] appears to treat human beings who have been uprooted from their homes and are stateless as mere goods, instead of helping the refugees gain protection and safety,” said Kok, who is one of the co-founders of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, which advocates democracy for Burma.
“I urge Prime Minister Najib to cancel the deal and instead focus on establishing a comprehensive national legal and administrative framework for the protection of refugees in Malaysia should his concern for them be genuine,” Kok said in an interview with The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.
Human rights activists in Malaysia also said that there was no guarantee that asylum seekers sent to the country under a deal with Australia would be treated properly.
Cynthia Gabriel, of the leading Malaysian human rights organization Suaram, was quoted by ABC as saying: “There is absolutely no way [asylum seekers will be properly protected], unless there is a specific legal mechanism and a framework in which the Malaysian government states a clear commitment to it.”
In Australia, the Greens spokesperson for immigration, Sen Sarah Hanson-Young, criticized the decision to send asylum seekers to Malaysia, a country condemned for its appalling human rights standards, where stateless people are considered illegal and can be caned.
“We know that this plan breaches international law, so the burden is now on the government to prove it complies with the Migration Act,” she said in a statement.
Sayed Karsim, a Rohingya asylum seeker who has been living at the Villawood immigration detention center in Sydney for nearly two years, said that although he has been recognized as a refugee and is waiting for security clearance to settle in Australia, he is worried about other asylum seekers being deported to Malaysia.
“I was arrested and detained at least 10 times in Malaysia's detention centers. I was beaten up and sold by Malaysian police to the human traffickers and my family had to pay a ransom for my freedom,” said the 38-year-old man, who fled Burma and illegally migrated to Malaysia in 1992, speaking to The Irrawaddy by phone.
He is one of thousands of ethnic Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Burma's Arakan State, who have fled the country to escape discrimination and human rights abuses by the Burmese authorities.
“I came here to Australia by a small boat at the risk of my life. But this is for the future of my children, who have never received any education at all in their life,” he said.
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