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Human rights group urges UN to block refugee exchange

KUALA LUMPUR -- Human Rights Watch has urged the United Nations not to endorse the Malaysia-Australia refugee swap, warning it could erode protection for asylum seekers across the Asia-Pacific region.

Under the agreement signed in Kuala Lumpur on Monday, Malaysia will take 800 asylum seekers who have arrived in Australia by boat, in return for Canberra accepting 4,000 processed refugees for resettlement.

“Human Rights Watch has publicly called on UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to not endorse this agreement,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, in a statement late Monday.

“This is a deal that would allow Australia, a country that has signed the Refugee Convention, to devolve its obligations to another country that has not signed the Refugee Convention,” he added.

“This would set the worst type of precedent and we're concerned it could start a wider erosion of protection for refugees throughout the Asia-Pacific region,” Robertson warned.

“The talk in the neighborhood will be, if Australia can do it, why can't we?”

Malaysia is not a signatory to the U.N. Refugee Convention, nor has it ratified the U.N. Convention against torture.

The agreement, part of Canberra's push to develop a regional solution to people smuggling, is designed to deter boat people from making the dangerous sea journey to Australia.

The U.N.'s refugee agency has said that the deal was inconsistent with the practice of allowing asylum seekers to be processed in the country in which they arrive.

However, U.N. Refugee Agency spokesman Ben Farrell told AFP from Australia on Monday that “the governments of Australia and Malaysia recognize the special arrangements needed for vulnerable people ... We will work with (them) to ensure the letter and spirit of the agreement are taken into account.”

Robertson accused Australia of using Malaysia as a dumping ground for boat people it does not want.

He argued that the 800 asylum seekers who will be sent from Australia would face grave risks, while assurances so far by the two governments that they will be looked after with dignity were unconvincing.

“For Malaysia, this is a money talks kind of deal, and for Australia, it's a desperate move by a government with falling poll numbers seeking political traction on the backs of vulnerable people seeking refuge,” he said.

Amnesty International has warned that asylum seekers sent to Malaysia could face lengthy waits to determine their status, as well as inhumane detention conditions and even caning.

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