|Demonstrators protest against Malaysia's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers [Reuters]
Australia and Malaysia have signed a deal to send 800 asylum seekers in Australia to Malaysia in exchange for the resettlement of 4,000 refugees.
The 4,000 refugees are to be resettled in Australia over a four year period, with that country bearing the cost of their transfer and settlement.
Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia's interior minister, and Chris Bowen, Australia's immigration minister, formally signed the deal at a Kuala Lumpur hotel on Monday.
The 800 asylum seekers sent to Malaysia will be placed in a "holding centre" for six week before being allowed into the community, Hussein said.
From midnight on Monday, the next 800 asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat will not be processed there, but will be transferred to Malaysia, Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister said.
The government said they would receive no preferential treatment in the processing of their claims or arrangements for resettlement.
Ahead of the signing, Brendan O'Connor, Australian's interior minister, said the deal represents "an historic and innovative approach" to undermining the people-smugglers' business model.
"We want to treat people fairly," he told ABC Television, but refused to confirm a report that those shipped to Malaysia would be allowed to work.
However, the deal has drawn criticism because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees.
"Australia is using Malaysia as a dumping ground for boat people it does not want and in the process walking away from its commitments to follow the 1951 Refugees Convention," Phil Robertson, the deputy director at the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said.
"Human Rights Watch has publicly called on UNHCR to not endorse this agreement because this is a deal that would allow Australia, a country that has signed the Refugee Convention, to devolve its obligations to another country that has not signed the Refugee Convention.
"This would set the worst type of precedent and we’re concerned it could start a wider erosion of protection for refugees throughout the Asia-Pacific region."
The UNHCR is not a signatory to the agreement, however appreciates that both governments consulted with the agency
"The UNHCR’s preference has always been an Arrangement which would enable all asylum-seekers arriving by boat into Australian territory to be processed in Australia. This would be consistent with general practice," the agency said in a statement.
"The critical test of this Arrangement will now be in its implementation both in Australia and Malaysia, particularly the protection and vulnerability assessment procedures under which asylum seekers will be assessed in Australia prior to any transfer taking place."
Chris Bowen, Australia's immigration minister, told Al Jazeera: "The whole idea of this arrangment is to remove incentive to get on the boat and take the very dangerous journey between Malaysia and Indonesia and Australia to get to Australia claim asylum.
"We have taken a big step forward, in conjunction with the UNHCR, in terms of improving protection outcomes for the 800 and ensuring appropriate protections are built into place.
"We have indicated that we will cover costs, but this is an arrangement by which Malaysia has nothing to gain. we are assisting in monetary terms, but we are assisting Malaysia in the process of 4,000 extra genuine refugees who have been through the process of UNHCR mandate and who are waiting for resettlement."
Protests against agreement
In Malaysia, demonstrators gathered outside the signing ceremony to protest against the country's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
One demonstrator held up a placard that read, "Malaysia's immigration laws still don't recognise 'refugees' and 'asylum seekers' - where's the guarantee for protection?"
The Australian government, which has a policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers until their claim for refugee status is resolved, is facing rising tensions in some of its detention centres over the processing of claims.
The migrants are held for months at Christmas Island detention centre, about 1,500 miles from the Australian mainland, and in other detention facilities.
About 200 people protested against the impending agreement outside Sydney's Villawood immigration detention centre on Sunday.
The immigration department said about 60 inmates were taking part in a peaceful protest at the Scherger detention centre in Queensland, with about 50 of these engaged in voluntary starvation.