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Refugees, mostly Myanmarese, wait to learn if they’ll win or lose in transfers
PUCHONG, Malaysia — The teenager’s eyes light up when she talks about her dream of traveling to Australia. Nyein Su Wai wants to see the “interesting animals” - koalas and kangaroos - but says she would be happiest about living without the constant fear she endures as a refugee in Malaysia.
She could become one of the winners in a swap dealthat would send 4,000 refugees from Malaysia to Australia. The losers would be 800 asylum-seekers who would travel the other way, with assurances that they would be treated better than more than 93,000 registered refugees, mostly from Myanmar, who eke out a precarious existence on the fringe of Malaysian society and law.
In Malaysia, Su Wai and her family constantly fear detention or, worse, deportation.
“I think Australia will be a good place for me,” the friendly, gangly 14-year-old said, sitting in a modest school for refugee children from Myanmar, located outside Malaysia’s largest city, Kuala Lumpur.
Australia and Malaysia continue to negotiate terms of the deal, which springs from Australia’s strong desire to deter asylum-seekers from coming there by boat.
Critics say wealthy Australia is shirking its international responsibilities by shunting asylum-seekers off to a developing nation with a tarnished human rights record that has not signed U.N. conventions on refugees and torture. Australia maintains that the deal will protect the asylum-seekers’ rights.
Sri Lankan-born Ramesh Fernandez, who spent three years in remote Australian immigration detention camps before he was accepted as a refugee, has another criticism of the deal. He doubts it will discourage anyone from making desperate boat journeys like the one he made in 2001.
“People know that Australia has human rights obligations, and they don’t want to go to Malaysia because Malaysia has problems and there are refugees who have been there for a long time,” said Mr. Fernandez, a director of a refugee help center in Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city.
Human rights advocates say refugees in Malaysia face beatings and live in overcrowded conditions. They have insufficient food and poor sanitation.
Refugees usually survive on odd jobs but risk detention and whippings with the dreaded rattan cane because, in the twilight world that they inhabit, they are officially not allowed to work or go to public schools.
Kyaw Zin Latt, a 30-year-old who fled Myanmar for Malaysia in 2008 when soldiers burned his village, claims police and the government’s volunteer security corps routinely harass refugees on the streets. They threaten to detain the refugees if they refuse to hand over their money and valuables.
Mr. Latt said he was arrested a year ago while working as a restaurant dishwasher. He said he spent two nights with 15 others in a cell meant for three. He slept on a cold cement floor while stripped to his underwear by police, before aid workers secured his release.
Su Wai, her parents and two sisters have for three years shared a single bedroom in a rented apartment that they share with other refugees on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Her father is a handyman, and her mother works illegally in an electronics factory.
Recently, the family cowered in their room for hours before dawn, afraid to look out their window because police were searching for illegal immigrants in their neighborhood.
Su Wai vividly recalls fleeing the military junta in Myanmar in search of a brighter future and walking for miles through jungles and sugar-cane plantations to cross into Thailand. She hid under a blanket in a van as smugglers brought them into Malaysia.-
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.
“We just want to be treated fairly as human beings … with dignity, so we feel very happy about the Australian plan.”
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