The United Nations today stressed the need to ensure that protection safeguards are enforced as Australia and Malaysia carry out a refugee exchange deal aimed at curbing people smuggling and the dangerous boat journeys that lead to loss of life at sea.
Under the agreement signed today by the two Governments, Australia will reportedly send 800 asylum-seekers to Malaysia over the next four years in exchange for Australia resettling 4,000 registered refugees currently in Malaysia.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is not a signatory to the arrangement, but it was consulted by the two Governments.
“UNHCR’s preference has always been an arrangement which would enable all asylum-seekers arriving by boat into Australian territory to be processed in Australia. This would be consistent with general practice,” the agency said in a statement issued from its headquarters in Geneva.
“The current arrangement worked out by both parties takes a different approach,” it added.
“It responds to the particular domestic and regional context of the asylum and migration situation in the Asia-Pacific region, which includes the need to address people smuggling challenges and, in particular, to prevent further loss of life at sea.”
UNHCR said it hopes that the arrangement will deliver “protection dividends” in both countries and the broader region. It also welcomed the fact that an additional 4,000 refugees from Malaysia will obtain a durable solution through resettlement to Australia.
“The potential to work towards safe and humane options for people other than to use dangerous sea journeys are also positive features of this arrangement,” the agency added.
The pact contains important protection safeguards, including respect for the principle of non-refoulement – which seeks to ensure that no refugee or asylum-seeker is returned to a situation in which they face serious harm, such as persecution, torture or inhumane or degrading treatment – and the right to asylum.
Other safeguards include lawful status to remain in Malaysia until a durable solution is found, and the ability to receive education, access to health care, and a right to employment.
UNHCR said it will continue to monitor and review progress, remaining engaged with the parties to ensure the protection safeguards are implemented in practice as the two Governments bring the arrangement into effect.