UNHCR Statement on the Australia-Malaysia Arrangement

Press Releases, 25 July 2011

GENEVA UNHCR notes the signature today of a bilateral Arrangement between Australia and Malaysia on transfer and resettlement.

UNHCR is not a signatory to the Arrangement, however it appreciates that both Governments have consulted with the Office.

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 current Arrangement worked out by both parties takes a different approach. 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 hopes that the Arrangement will in time deliver protection dividends in both countries and the broader region. It also welcomes the fact that an additional 4000 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. In addition, the Malaysian Government is in discussions with UNHCR on the registration of refugees and asylum-seekers under the planned Government programme announced in June on the registration of all migrant workers.

The Arrangement and its implementing guidelines contain important protection safeguards, including respect for the principle of non-refoulement; the right to asylum; the principle of family unity and best interests of the child; humane reception conditions including protection against arbitrary detention; 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.

The critical test of this Arrangement will now be in its implementation both in Australia and Malaysia, particularly the protection and vulnerability assessment procedures under which asylum-seekers will be assessed in Australia prior to any transfer taking place.

UNHCR 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 this Arrangement into effect.

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Asylum and Migration

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The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

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In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

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As in many other Asian countries, even official UNHCR refugee status does not always afford adequate protection. Refugees are not allowed to work legally, so are subject to exploitation in dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs that locals do not want.

More than in many other countries, refugees in Malaysia have banded together to help themselves in the absence of official services. UNHCR, non-governmental organizations and volunteers support these initiatives, which include small crafts businesses, as well as schools and clinics, but they are largely driven by the refugees themselves.

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