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The U.N. High Commissioner for Rights, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), registered Su Wai and her family as refugees, but Malaysia still regards them as illegal immigrants.

Australia’s government, meanwhile, is suffering in public opinion polls because of asylum-seekers who smuggled in from transit points in Malaysia and Indonesia by boat.

The numbers are small by international standards, but they are growing - to the chagrin of many Australians, who prize their relative isolation as a country that borders nothing but ocean.

The refugee swap is expected to cost Australia $320 million over four years and Malaysia nothing.

The details have not been finalized, but asylum-seekers brought into Malaysia will need to be treated better than refugees already there for the deal to be acceptable from Australia’s perspective.

Australia promises that refugees who are taken to Malaysia will be spared the cane. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has said asylum-seekers deported from Australia will not be treated as illegal immigrants. He has insisted they will be placed in a special category that will safeguard them from brutal treatment.

Mr. Bowen added that Australia will not accept any of the 250 asylum-seekers intercepted in Australian waters since May 7, when a tentative deal was reached with Malaysia. He said they will be sent to Malaysia or another country.

Several countries in the region appear interested in striking a similar agreement.

Australia is negotiating with impoverished Papua New Guinea to open an immigration detention camp there. However, Australia has rejected an offer to host asylum-seekers from its South Pacific neighbor, the Solomon Islands, which teeters on becoming a failed state.

Malaysia’s neighbor Thailand, also criticized for its treatment of Myanmarese refugees, is paying close attention to the Australian deal. Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya described it last month as “something that the rest of us would be interested to look at.”

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Labor Party had been critical of sending asylum-seekers to camps in other countries when the previous conservative government, led by Prime Minister John Howard, did it. On being elected in 2007, the Labor government shut down camps that they condemned as inhumane in Papua New Guinea and the tiny Pacific atoll of Nauru.

UNHCR is working with Australia and Malaysia on the deal in the hope of improving the lot of refugees in the region, including Malaysia.

“What we would like to see is for refugees to have the legal right to stay in the country, have access to livelihood and self-reliance, have access to education, support for vulnerable individuals and for there to be opportunities for long-term solutions for all refugees,” said Yante Ismail, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Kuala Lumpur.

Refugees in Malaysia are hoping for the same things.

“We are in a difficult position here in Malaysia. We suffer a lot,” said Moe Moe Khing, an official in a Myanmarese social-assistance group.

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