Australia moves to revive Malaysia refugee swap

SYDNEY, Sept 12, 2011 (AFP) - Australia on Monday revived plans to ship hundreds of asylum-seekers to Malaysia, saying it would alter legislation after the nation's highest court blocked the proposed refugee swap.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who is facing plunging support and speculation of a leadership challenge, said she would seek to amend Australia's migration law to enable the government to push through the troubled policy.

Under the plan, up to 800 boatpeople would be sent to Malaysia while Canberra would accept 4,000 of Kuala Lumpur's registered refugees for resettlement in Australia over four years.

"We are determined to pursue the arrangement we have made with Malaysia," Gillard told a press conference.

The prime minister said the broad amendments would allow for asylum-seekers, including unaccompanied minors, to be sent to Malaysia as well as another processing centre in Papua New Guinea.

"The amendments... will restore to executive government the ability to make the arrangements that it sees fit for the transfer and processing of asylum seekers in third countries," Gillard said.

Australia is pushing for a regional solution to stop people-smugglers bringing asylum-seekers into its waters and believes that transferring boatpeople to Malaysia for processing would act as a deterrent.

Rights activists have criticised the so-called Malaysia Solution, accusing Australia of offloading its obligations to refugees and sending vulnerable people to a country that is not a signatory to the UN convention for refugees.

The politically divisive issue, as well as a backflip on the introduction of a pollution tax, have helped drive Gillard's disapproval rating to 62 percent, according to a Nielson poll published Monday.

The High Court last month froze the deal before it could be implemented, saying the government could not send asylum-seekers to countries not legally bound to adequately protect them.

The government argued the ruling effectively rewrote the law, invalidating legislation passed in 2001 which was used to send asylum-seekers to Papua New Guinea and the tiny Pacific state of Nauru.

Gillard said the amendments would simply restore the understanding of the Migration Act that existed prior to the High Court's decision.

But refugee groups condemned Canberra's new strategy to revive the deal.

Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition said Australia was "wilfully and blatantly subverting the Refugee Convention and its obligation to asylum-seekers and refugees".

Lawyer David Manne, who brought the High Court challenge that forced the amendments, said he would not rule out another legal challenge to again block the refugee swap.

"It is extremely disappointing to see the government proposing to circumvent the High Court's ruling instead of getting on with the job of playing by the rules that we signed up to under the Refugees Convention," he told AFP.

Canberra's response comes as a Victorian state court prepares to review people-smuggling laws after lawyers for 12 Indonesian men accused of the crime argued they should not face charges because they were assisting asylum-seekers who had a legal right to come to Australia.

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