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Australia-Malaysia agreement sends asylum-seekers to UNHCR RSD

May 17, 2011

Australia and Malaysia reached a tentative agreement that will send 800 asylum-seekers from Australia – where they would have gone through refugee status determination by the Australian government – to Malaysia where RSD will be conducted by UNHCR.

UNHCR’s office in Malaysia has had by far the largest RSD caseload of any UNHCR operation for several years, with more than 40,000 applications in 2009.

In exchange, Australia would accept for resettlement 4000 recognized refugees currently in Malaysia. The difference in numbers – 800 asylum-seekers v. 4000 refugees – was criticized by Australian opposition politicians. But it appears consistent with longstanding Australian preference for resettlement from third countries over the arrival of uninvited asylum-seekers who arrive by boat.

Press reports indicated that Malaysia had committed to not deport any of the asylum-seekers who are ultimately recognized as refugees by UNHCR. But it is not clear what other rights they would have in Malaysia, which is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

On May 17, Australia’s Immigration Minister signalled to the press that Australia might seek similar agreements with other countries in the region, including Thailand, where UNHCR conducts RSD but refugees are often subject to prolonged detention.

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