Academics and activists condemn Malaysia refugee deal in open letter

Refugees await processing on Christmas Island. Academics, charities and other refugee advocates have condemned a plan by the Australian government to send asylum seekers to Malaysia. AAP

A conference of academic experts on asylum seekers has published an open letter calling on the United Nations to condemn the Australian government’s plan to send 800 refugees who arrive by boat in Australia to Malaysia for processing.

Critics of the plan, under which Australia would take 4000 Burmese refugees off Malaysia’s hands, have warned that asylum seekers are at risk of ill-treatment in Malaysia.

The letter, which was also signed by several charities and refugee advocacy organisations, was produced at the end of a conference hosted by the University of NSW’s Centre for Refugee Research.

A group of academics from the Centre for Refugee Research have travelled to Geneva today to present the letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The text of the letter is as follows:

“We strongly urge the UNHCR to condemn a swap deal that would see 800 asylum seekers sent from a country that has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, Australia, to a non-signatory country, Malaysia.

This agreement not only breaches Australia’s international law obligations to protect those seeking asylum but directly undermines UNHCR’s core mandate in a number of significant respects.

Firstly, the fundamental rights of those fleeing persecution and seeking protection from a Convention country, including those set out in EXCOM Conclusion 28, will be denied, setting a dangerous global precedent.

Secondly, those being removed will be denied the prospect of any real durable solution and instead face the very real prospect of ongoing human rights abuses.

Thirdly, by overtly politicising resettlement this agreement further undermines a principled approach to resettlement, based on compelling need, rather than a resettlement state’s vested political interests.

Finally, given Australia has stated it will not resettle any of the 800 removed, it will undoubtedly separate families, undermining UNHCR’s attempts to ensure "derivative status’ applies to vulnerable women and children.

This agreement also has the potential to legitimise the current treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia, a practice that falls seriously below international human rights standards as set out in Articles 2 to 34 of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Again, we strongly urge UNHCR to condemn this agreement.”

The list of signatories to the letter include Dr Eileen Pittaway, the director of UNSW’s Centre for Refugee Research, Linda Bartolomei, a researcher at the Centre, Amnesty International, the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia and the Catholic Religious Australia Sisters of Charity of Australia.

A spokeswoman for the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, said the Australian government was already working closely with the UNHCR.

“The UNHCR has publicly supported the Malaysian transfer arrangements as an opportunity for better protection of refugees in the region,” she said.

“The UNHCR has been closely consulted as part of the negotiations wth Malaysia and will assist and process any asylum seekers transferred as part of the deal.”

Mr Bowen was a keynote speaker at the UNSW refugee conference last week, but his address was interrupted when around 30 protesters stormed into the lecture hall shouting “Shame, Bowen, shame.”