Australia-Malaysia refugee treaty inconsistent with norm: UN

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The UN's refugee agency said a controversial Australia-Malaysia deal signed Monday was inconsistent with the practice of allowing asylum-seekers to be processed in the country in which they arrive.

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

"UNHCRs preference has always been an arrangement which would enable all asylum-seekers arriving by boat into Australian territory to be processed in Australia," the High Commissioner for Refugees' office said in a statement.

"This would be consistent with general practice."

Nevertheless, the final accord was an improvement from earlier proposals, which allowed children to be included among 800 asylum seekers to be sent to Malaysia to have their refugee claims assessed, a provision that was criticised by UNHCR.

UNHCR spokesman Ben Farrell, speaking by telephone from Australia, told AFP that although the final agreement does not specifically ban the return of unaccompanied minors, there were now provisions for the vulnerable to be assessed "on a case by case basis".

"The governments of Australia and Malaysia recognise the special arrangements needed for vulnerable people," he said.

"We will work with (them) to ensure the letter and spirit of the agreement are taken into account," Farrell said.

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

The plan has also sparked concern because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, nor has it ratified the UN Convention against Torture.

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.

© 2011 AFP

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