New challenges to Malaysia swap deal

July 8, 2011

Plans to give refugees deported from Australia a “special barcode” when they arrive in Malaysia were revealed by the June 29 Daily Telegraph. A final refugee swap deal between Australia and Malaysia is likely to be announced this month.

More than 340 refugees have arrived since Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the plan on May 7 to “swap” 800 asylum seekers in Australia for 4000 “processed refugees” in Malaysia. The refugees affected by the deal are being held in various stages of isolation on Christmas Island.

Michelle Dimasi, who founded the group Asylum Seekers Christmas Island, visited them in June. She wrote on ABC’s The Drum Opinion that refugees in detention were already referred to “by number rather than by name” — an “unnecessarily bureaucratic and dehumanising practice”.

The plan to give refugees barcodes that can be scanned by immigration officials would supposedly protect them from Malaysia’s harsh immigration police and RELA, a volunteer paramilitary corps that specifically hunts “illegal” migrants and asylum seekers.

But Australia’s home affairs department also said the refugees Australia deports to Malaysia will receive “no special treatment” over the more than 90,000 other asylum seekers already there.

After being screened on arriving, those sent to Malaysia would need to find their own accommodation and cannot work, access public schools or health care.

Immigration minister Chris Bowen told ABC’s Lateline in May that people in Malaysia “don’t have access to welfare”. He said that while there would be “no formal work rights” for refugees to support themselves, “there’s informal work that happens”.

Thousands of asylum seekers in Malaysia are forced to work undocumented in dangerous places that are routinely raided by RELA.

Many thousands more live in slums and squalor, in constant fear of being arrested and subject to the torturous practice of judicial caning.

A US state department report found 1300 people died in Malaysian immigration detention because of overcrowding and poor sanitation.

Among those now held on Christmas Island are children, unaccompanied teenage women and at least one pregnant woman.

A letter from a Hazara refugee on Christmas Island sent on July 6 said there were about 60 to 70 Afghans — including 20 children — that would be affected by the swap deal.

“Many of them are illiterate and were unaware of such news,” the letter said. “Some of them were in [the] Indian Ocean in [a] boat while this was announced and some of them did not have any option except coming.” The refugees were “very upset” and “under stress” over their uncertain situation.

Meanwhile, a second high court challenge has been launched against the refugee swap deal.

Ramazan Ahmadi, an Afghan refugee who arrived on Christmas Island on June 4, will challenge the government’s “right to detain people without determining their refugee status”, Lateline said on July 6.

Sydney-based lawyers, who lodged papers at the high court on behalf of Ramazan, said detaining people but refusing to process their refugee claims was likely a breach of international law and refugee conventions.

In June, human rights lawyers began a case on behalf on a Kurdish woman and child, which will argue they have a right to be reunited with their husband and father, a refugee held in Maribyrnong detention centre in Melbourne.

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