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UN blasts Australia over Malaysia boatpeople plan

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SYDNEY (AFP) – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned Australia its plan to send boatpeople to Malaysia could be illegal, and appealed for Canberra to be more humane towards asylum seekers.

In comments reported in Australian media Tuesday, Navi Pillay said the country should work on making its processing policy more efficient rather than sending detainees offshore.

"If Australia is serious about this policy of sending 800 people out to Malaysia, then I think it violates refugee law," said Pillay, who is on an official visit to the country.

"They cannot send individuals to a country that has not ratified the torture convention, the convention on refugees," she said.

"So there are no protections for individuals in Malaysia. And Australia, of all people, that upholds (international standards), should not collaborate with these kinds of schemes."

Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, nor has it ratified the UN Convention against Torture.

As it struggles to deal with an armada of asylum-seeker boats arriving from Asia and recent violent unrest in detention centres, Canberra this month announced plans to transfer 800 boatpeople to Malaysia for processing.

In return, Australia will accept and resettle, over four years, 4,000 registered refugees currently living in Malaysia, although the deal is yet to be finalised.

Amnesty International has said that asylum seekers sent to Malaysia will face lengthy waits to determine their status, inhumane detention conditions and even torture, in the form of caning.

The plan has been compared by Australian media with the "Pacific Solution" which was branded "inhumane" by human rights groups before it was repealed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard's centre-left Labor Party in 2007.

Under that policy, asylum seekers were transferred to detention centres on the tiny state of Nauru and Manus island in Papua New Guinea. Gillard's government is in talks to revive the PNG plan.

Pillay said she would raise her concerns with the prime minister.

"The first option should not be how best to turn away people, the first option should be how to receive people," she said ahead of a meeting with Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

Bowen said they had a "constructive and positive" discussion, without going into details.

Three boats carrying more than 100 asylum-seekers have arrived in Australia since the deal with Malaysia was announced on May 7.

They have been transferred to the remote Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island, where boatpeople are normally detained, "pending removal to another country".

Gillard told parliament on Monday she was still thrashing out details of the transfer agreement with Malaysia.

"Its aim is to break the people smuggler's business model and, as I've said to this house before, I'm not ruling in or ruling out arrangements," Gillard said.

Human Rights Law Centre executive director Phil Lynch urged the government to walk away from the deal.

"Australia's obligation is to provide protection to those people who lawfully seek asylum under the refugees convention," he told ABC Radio.

"That is Australia's international obligation, it is our moral obligation, it is our human obligation."

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