By Rob Taylor and Razak Ahmad
KUALA LUMPUR/CANBERRA, July 22 Malaysia and
Australia will sign a pact on Monday to swap thousands of
boatpeople, a source with direct knowledge of the deal said on
Friday, possibly helping Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard
turn around growing unpopularity with voters.
In what the source said was a one-off deal, 4,000 asylum
seekers now in Malaysia and registered with the U.N. High
Commissioner for Refugees will be re-settled in Australia.
Australia in return will send 800 still-unprocessed asylum
seekers to Malaysia for refugee assessment.
"For Malaysia, the deal will be beneficial because it will
help us to deal with a long-standing problem of refugees who
continue to come to our country in search of asylum when we have
limited means to help them," said the source.
Asylum seekers are a political flashpoint in Australia,
although U.N. figures show the country ranks 46th on a list of
nations hosting refugee hopefuls, with just under 0.5 percent of
the world's asylum total.
The refugee swap is badly needed by Gillard to turn around
public perceptions that ruling Labor is soft on border
protection and unable to deliver on its promises in the fragile
parliament, where it holds just a one-seat majority.
Gillard, whose popularity is a record lows, went into last
year's dead-heat elections promising to sign a deal to process
asylum seekers in East Timor, but that proposal collapsed when
East Timor refused to take part.
The one-off arrangement may not be strong enough for Labor
to convince sceptical voters it can stop surging asylum boat
arrivals, with conservative opponents making ground on Gillard
with claims border security is a shambles.
The source, who declined to be identified, also warned the
deal could take several years to execute, meaning divisions
among Australians on the issue could stretch dangerously close
to elections due in 2013.
Conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott described the
Malaysian agreement as "a bad deal" and said it would not stop a
surge in boat arrivals.
"It is another broken promise from a prime minister who said
that she would never send boatpeople to a country that hadn't
signed the UN Refugee Convention," Abbott told Australian
The agreement, in negotiation since May, could also strain
relations with the influential Greens party, which is opposed to
the deal and which wields balance of power in Australia's upper
But the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, citing unnamed
sources, said the deal had the support of the United Nations,
which had originally been concerned that the agreement could
breach international refugee rights.
Fortunately for Gillard, the deal to be signed by
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen in Malaysia will not require
legislation in the restive parliament, where Labor relies on
Green and independent MPs to stay in power.
Australia currently has more than 6,000 asylum seekers in
detention, originating from countries including Iran, Iraq,
Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
Malaysia, on the other hand, has a much larger problem of
dealing with refugees.
Malaysia last year saw 25,600 refugees registering with the
UNHCR to seek asylum, the highest among all countries where the
refugee agency has offices.
They bring the number of registered refugees and asylum
seekers in the Southeast Asian country to 93,600, mostly from
Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, according to
the UNHCR's Malaysia's office.
Much of the criticism over the arrangement has focused on
concerns over possible mistreatment of the refugees, especially
those coming to Malaysia, which imposes harsh punishments for
illegal entry that include caning.
"The arrangement that both countries will sign on Monday
will take into account concerns over the human rights of the
asylum seekers based on the input that the Malaysian government
has received," said the source.
(Editing by Liau Y-Sing and Nick Macfie)