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Australia refugee swap with Malaysia faces key test

Australia plans to airlift refugees from an intercepted boat to Malaysia next week. It will film their forced return and post it on YouTube to deter future refugees from trying to reach its shores.

By Correspondent / August 4, 2011

A Myanmar refugee family chat in their family room which they share with two other relatives in Kuala Lumpur June 24. Malaysia prepares to receive the first batch of refugees under a swap deal with Australia aimed at helping both sides to tackle a rising influx of refugees.

Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters

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Bangkok, Thailand

A controversial refugee-swap agreement between Australia and Malaysia could be put to the test next week following the interception of a boatload of 54 asylum seekers on the way to Australia.

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The group was redirected to an offshore detention center on Thursday. Now, the detainees are due to be airlifted to Malaysia, which has agreed to take in 800 asylum seekers from Australia, which is a magnet for Asians fleeing war and poverty. In return, Australia will resettle 4,000 refugees registered in Malaysia over the next four years. The agreement, signed July 25, is seen as an attempt by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to shore up her minority government by acting tough on illegal migration, a hot-button issue.

In a new-media twist, Australia plans to film the forced return of the detainees and post videos on Youtube and Facebook, with faces pixilated to hide their identities. The government has produced online videos in several languages aimed at convincing refugees not to attempt the hazardous sea crossing to Australia.

But new media or not, critics don't seem so impressed. Some say the deal, dubbed the "Malaysia Solution," runs roughshod over Australia’s obligations to protect asylum seekers and may encourage other countries to follow suit. “We’re concerned it could start a wider erosion of protection for refugees throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The talk in the neighborhood will be ‘hey, if Australia can do it, why can’t we?’ ” says Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia for Human Rights Watch.

Human rights groups say Australia is acting unlawfully by sending asylum seekers to Malaysia, which hasn’t signed the UN Convention on Refugees and has a poor record for treating refugees, who aren’t allowed to work and whose children can't attend school. In response, Malaysia has agreed to make an exception for those transferred from Australia, who will be resettled “in accordance with human rights standards,” it said in a statement.

Australian officials claim that the expulsions will undercut demand for the services of human traffickers, who profit from the seaborne trade. Migrants pay tens of thousands of dollars to travel via Malaysia to Indonesia, from where rickety vessels set sail for Australia. More than 6,500 people arrived last year by this route, mostly Afghans, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Iraqis, and Burmese.

Officials are quick to admit it isn't likely to completely end the risky practice, as Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told Australian radio: “We know that people smugglers will be out there saying, Look this won’t apply to you’, because they’re desperate to make money off desperate people.”

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