Kirsty Needham July 22, 2011
The Gillard Government's refugee swap deal with Malaysia has been settled, with documents expected to be signed on Monday.
AFTER months of difficult negotiations, the Gillard government has finally clinched its refugee swap deal with Malaysia.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen is set to sign the deal on Monday at a ceremony in Kuala Lumpur, putting the seal on a plan that Labor hopes will stem illegal boat arrivals in Australia and neutralise one of its most difficult political issues.
But the government still faces challenges, with another boat carrying 52 people intercepted yesterday, bringing to more than 450 the number of asylum seekers who have arrived in Australian waters since the Malaysia plan was announced in May.
Asylum seekers at a detention centre in Malaysia, where the government is set to sign a refugee swap deal with Australia. Photo: AP
Under the deal, Australia will take 4000 confirmed refugees from Malaysia, in exchange for which Malaysia will take 800 boat arrivals from Australia.
But it is believed the Malaysian government will accept only people arriving after Monday's signing, which places pressure on the Gillard government to strike a deal with Papua New Guinea to deliver on its insistence that recent arrivals won't be processed in Australia.
Last night Mr Bowen's office refused to confirm that the Malaysia deal would be signed on Monday. But The Age has been told the signing by Mr Bowen and Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein will go ahead, and be witnessed by representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration.
Sources said the two refugee agencies would not be signatories to the document, but they had agreed it would operate in parallel with their own policies for protection for refugees, and side-deals with Australia.
UNHCR endorsement is crucial because the agency will have responsibility for processing and resettling the 800 asylum seekers sent to Malaysia.
But UNHCR approval has been hard won, after the agency's Geneva head office pushed for the deal to ensure human rights guarantees and rejected several earlier drafts. The commissioner, Antonio Guterres, was peppered with hundreds of protest emails from Australians.
UNHCR approval is critical for the Gillard government to have the refugee exchange accepted by Labor's Left faction, which was concerned that unaccompanied children would be sent to Malaysia.
The UNHCR has welcomed Australia agreeing to accept 4000 refugees for resettlement, but had been cautious about sending boat arrivals from Australia to a country that is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention.
About 95,000 refugees in Malaysia have no legal work right, are at risk of arrest, have no access to government schools and healthcare, and must wait years for resettlement in other countries.
Australia has committed $292 million to the deal, which will include covering the UNHCR's costs in ensuring the healthcare, education and eventual resettlement in third countries of the 800, who will be issued with identity documents stating they are not illegal migrants.
Negotiations to reopen the Manus Island processing centre in PNG - where the government hopes to send recent boat arrivals - have been stepped up after stalling for several months due to political instability and the resignation of Prime Minister Michael Somare.
Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, who along with PNG Foreign Secretary Michael Maue has been attending the east Asia summit in Bali, said yesterday Australia had to be cautious
about rushing into an asylum seeker deal with PNG. Mr Rudd said negotiations with PNG depended on how the country's political crisis unfolded. "We have to be cautious with how we proceed," he said.
Mr Rudd pledged to personally assist with the negotiations "in whatever human way I can" between now and when he goes into hospital for heart surgery on August 1. He was expecting to meet the PNG Foreign Secretary while in Bali.
Another complication for the Gillard government is a High Court challenge to the decision that all those who arrived by boat after May 7 will be processed in third countries.
Yesterday the court signalled that a legal challenge on behalf of a woman and her four-year-old son, who are facing removal from Christmas Island, would proceed in conjunction with a second challenge in October.
The woman and child are among those to have arrived on Christmas Island since the ''people swap'' plan with Malaysia was announced.
Speaking outside the court, Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre executive director David Manne welcomed the court's intention to hear the case as a priority. The woman and her son arrived after May 7, but the woman's husband is in Australia after his claim for refugee status was upheld. ''They're currently being detained indefinitely on Christmas Island and every day is another day of damage,'' Mr Manne said.
With DANIEL FLITTON, MICHAEL GORDON