(Bangkok) - Malaysia should not sign an agreement to receive 800 asylum seekers from Australia because it cannot ensure that their rights would be respected, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Prime Minister Dato' Sri Mohammed Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak. If Malaysia is truly concerned about the fate of asylum seekers, it should systematically address abuses regularly faced by all asylum seekers and migrants in Malaysia, rather than creating exceptions for those coming from Australia, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch also wrote a letter to the High Commissioner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees calling on the agency not to endorse the agreement, regardless of undertakings made by Malaysia or Australia, because Human Rights Watch believes that the agreement will be contrary to UNHCR’s own obligations and standards.
Malaysia, which is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, does not distinguish between asylum seekers and other irregular migrants who face prolonged detention in poor conditions. They can be caned as a form of punishment and they are not allowed to work or send their children to Malaysian schools. Malaysia depends on the under-resourced and overburdened United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify and protect refugees in the country.
"Malaysia's proven hostility toward refugees means that the 800 asylum seekers to be transferred there under the agreement face grave risks, including possible long-term detention, caning, and other serious rights violations," said Bill Frelick, refugee program director at Human Rights Watch. "Given Malaysia's poor record, recent Australian assurances that the 800 migrants will be looked after with dignity are hardly convincing."
Under the agreement, Malaysia would send 4,000 recognized refugees to Australia for resettlement in exchange for accepting the 800 asylum seekers. Both countries have said the agreement is part of a broader regional initiative to share responsibility for protecting refugees, known as "burden sharing."
If Malaysia accepts the asylum-seekers it risks being viewed globally as a politically expedient dumping ground for migrants under the guise of regional amicability, Human Rights Watch said. Malaysia should instead work with the UN refugee agency to set up its own system for fairly determining the status of refugees and asylum seekers.
"Malaysia has made no effort to establish its own capacity to protect refugees," Frelick said. "Instead of piecemeal initiatives threatening refugee rights, Malaysia should urge its neighbors to help it build an effective and compassionate asylum system."
Efforts to increase the number of refugees resettled in third countries should be encouraged, but they should not depend on countries like Malaysia receiving additional asylum seekers for whom they have shown no capacity to provide protection, Human Rights Watch said.
"Resettlement of refugees is an excellent solution, and regional cooperation is essential to effective refugee protection," Frelick said. "But no prize is worth sacrificing the rights of hundreds of asylum seekers. The Australia-Malaysia agreement should be abandoned."