Australia condemned over deal to ship refugees to Malaysia

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Australia's latest initiative to deter asylum-seekers by sending them to Malaysia was roundly condemned yesterday, with critics noting that Kuala Lumpur has refused to sign the United Nations Refugee Convention and has a record of mistreating refugees.

Under pressure to act tough on "boat people", the Prime Minister, Julia Gilllard, said at the weekend that the next 800 asylum-seekers to arrive in Australia would be taken to Malaysia, where they will join a long queue to have their claims processed by UN officials.

In exchange, over the next four years Australia will accept 4,000, mainly Burmese, refugees who are in Malaysia awaiting resettlement. While the deal is being painted as a one-off, Malaysia's High Commissioner to Australia, Salman Ahmad, hinted strongly that his country would welcome similar swaps in future.

The announcement followed news that Canberra was negotiating with Papua New Guinea to reopen an immigration detention centre on the remote island of Manus. If agreement is reached, thousands of asylum-seekers will be processed there, as happened under the right-wing former prime minister, John Howard.

The number of boat people has dropped sharply this year: 940 came in the first four months, compared with more than 2,100 in the same period last year. However, many Australians are convinced the country is being "swamped" – an impression the conservative opposition has been at pains to bolster.

Ms Gillard said the new deal would be a major blow to people-smugglers who ship asylum-seekers to Australia via Malaysia and Indonesia. "The key message this will deliver to people-smugglers and those seeking to make the dangerous journey to Australia is: do not get on that boat," she said. "Under this arrangement, if you arrive in Australian waters and are taken to Malaysia, you will go to the back of the queue."

The Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak, said the agreement would benefit both countries, while sending a strong signal that his country should not be used as a transit point. But the plan was attacked by Amnesty International Australia's refugee co-ordinator, Graham Thom, who said: "If you're looking for a country in the region that has some of the harshest policies towards refugees and asylum-seekers, then you couldn't really go past Malaysia."

An Amnesty report last year said Malaysia's detention centres were filthy and overcrowded. "Detainees lack proper healthcare, sufficient food and clean drinking water," it said. "Children under 18 are held with adults, and abuse by detention staff is rife."

The UN refugee agency, meanwhile, says refugees in Malaysia are vulnerable to arrest, and "may be subject to detention, prosecution, whipping and deportation".

The refugee swap will be expensive, with Australia footing the A$292m (£191m) bill. But Ian Rintoul, of the Refugee Action Coalition, believes it will not deter asylum-seekers from coming. "People are unaware of the fine detail when [they] set out from Afghanistan or Sri Lanka," he said.

Mr Ahmad told Sky News that Malaysia treated its 90,000 refugees "with respect and dignity".