Swap plan undermined


By Michael Gordon and Kirsty Needham, The Age

THE Gillard government’s Malaysian “people-swap” agreement has been undermined by the arrests and likely deportation to China of a group of asylum seekers registered with the United Nations in Kuala Lumpur.

Migration agent Libby Hogarth has written to Immigration Minister Chris Bowen expressing alarm over the arrests of around 18 members of the Uighur ethnic minority and seeking assurances on their plight. She says three of those arrested have immediate family in Australia.

”If we have had people registered with the UN and deported to a country with an appalling human rights record, what hope is there for those we send to Malaysia?” Ms Hogarth told The Saturday Age.

If the arrests and deportations are confirmed, it will undermine one of the government’s central claims – that Malaysia is a suitably safe place to send asylum seekers – when the full High Court hears a challenge to the people-swap deal on Monday.

Amnesty International last night claimed ”grave fears” were held for the safety of the Uighurs and said the arrests cast doubt on a cornerstone of the people-swap deal – that those sent to Malaysia would not be refouled (sent back) to the countries from which they had fled.

Amnesty’s Graham Thom said the reports also raised doubts about the Gillard government’s assertions that the deal would be a step towards a regional agreement and result in better treatment of other asylum seekers in Malaysia.

Concerns about the plight of the Uighurs come as the federal government and Papua New Guinea yesterday signed a memorandum of understanding to reopen an asylum seeker assessment centre on Manus Island. The centre and the transfer of boat arrivals from Australia will be a ”visible deterrent to people smugglers”, the document says. Australia will meet ”all costs” for the deal, which the Refugee Council of Australia described as a return to the Howard government’s 2001 Pacific Solution.

Should the High Court further delay or strike out the transfers to Malaysia, Papua New Guinea now stands as an ”extra deterrent”, government sources said.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said yesterday the government was ”determined to implement” the Malaysian people-swap deal.

Critical to the legality of the deal is the question of whether Australia is bound to ensure that protections afforded to those registered with the UN in Malaysia are real and enforceable. If this cannot be demonstrated, Australia is potentially in breach of its obligations under international and domestic law.

A spokesman for the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said there was some confusion concerning the situation of the Uighurs arrested and that the agency was making inquiries with the Malaysian government.

”We have strongly urged the Malaysian government to allow UNHCR’s refugee status determination process to run its full course,” the spokesman said. ”We have especially urged the Malaysian government not to deport any Uighurs to a country where their human rights might be at risk.”

One well-placed source claimed the deportations had proceeded despite objections from Australian and United States officials. Australian officials said details were sketchy and declined to comment.

Ms Hogarth said that if the Uighurs were accused of breaking Malaysian laws that warranted deportation, they should be tried in Malaysia and given legal assistance.

Under the agreement struck with the Malaysian government, those who are sent to Malaysia ”will be provided with the opportunity to have their asylum claims considered and those in need of international protection will not be refouled”. They will also be afforded human rights.

Mr Bowen has expressed confidence that the court will uphold the legality of the agreement. Under it, Australia will send 800 unauthorised boat arrivals and, in return, accept an additional 4000 refugees over four years.

A boat carrying 71 suspected asylum seekers was intercepted off Christmas Island yesterday. The passengers will be taken to the island to be assessed for transfer to another country.

This brings to more than 330 the number of asylum seekers who have arrived on Christmas Island since the Malaysia agreement was finalised on July 25. The government had planned to send the first group to Malaysia when the legal action began.

It was not clear yesterday when the Manus Island centre would be open or whether asylum seekers would be confined behind razor wire.

Mr Bowen said the centre ”will complement the Malaysia transfer arrangement”.