Aussie parliament condemns Malaysian refugee deal

June 16, 2011 - 6:29 AM
Malaysia Australia Refugees

In this Wednesday, June 8, 2011 photo, Myanmar refugee girls play in their shared room in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Refugees in Malaysia, mostly from Myanmar, may get the chance to move to Australia following the recent announcement that an agreement would enable 4,000 refugees in Malaysia to move to Australia over a four-year period. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Prime Minister Julia Gillard said her government will forge ahead with a proposed referee swap deal with Malaysia despite the Australian parliament condemning the policy in a rare show of defiance Thursday.

Australia wants to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in return for Australia resettling 4,000 registered refugees from among the 93,000 languishing in that Southeast Asian nation, which has not signed the U.N. Convention on Refugees and has been criticized for their harsh treatment.

The aim is to deter asylum seekers from coming to Australia by boat.

A motion condemning the policy was passed by the House of Representatives with the support of two key lawmakers whose support Gillard's Labor Party relies on to stay in power. The Senate passed the same motion in May.

The Greens party lawmaker Adam Bandt, who proposed the motion Thursday, said it is the first time in the 110-year history of Australia's federal parliament that both chambers have condemned a government policy. That claim could not be immediately verified Thursday.

But while embarrassing for the government, the motion does not force the government to change it plans.

Gillard's government commands a single-seat majority in the House of Representatives with the support of Bandt and three independent lawmakers. But her fragile government does not need to pass laws to implement the deal with Malaysia so does not need the parliament's endorsement of the plan.

Gillard said the policy was necessary to stop an increasing number of asylum seekers from paying people smugglers to bring them by boat from transit points in Malaysia and Indonesia.

"I intend pursuing the discussions of the Malaysia agreement to finality and then I intend to implement it because I intend to break the business model of the people smugglers," she told Parliament.

The plan, first announced last month, has been criticized by rights advocates including the U.N. human rights commissioner.

The government has promised that the deal will have the endorsement of the U.N. refugee agency UNHRC.

Australia has sent a delegation to Geneva to discuss details of the plan with UNHCR officials.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen played down media suggestions that the visit could indicate that UNHCR support for the deal is collapsing.

"It's singularly unsurprising that there might be a meeting in Geneva as well as a meeting in Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere as we sort out finer details," Bowen told Sky News television on Thursday.