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Doubts mount over Australia-Malaysia refugee swap

16 june 2011, 13:17
Australia's proposed refugee swap with Malaysia looked in serious doubt Thursday, with lawmakers formally condemning the plan as a delegation rushed to Geneva to shore up UN support, AFP reports.

In a sign of growing discomfort with the plan to send 800 boatpeople to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 of its registered refugees, MPs voted 70-68 for a motion demanding the policy be withdrawn, including three key crossbenchers.

It is the first time lawmakers have formally condemned Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who leads a fragile coalition with a mere one-seat majority, and casts doubt over the swap, which has drawn widespread criticism.

The left-leaning Greens party, a key partner in Gillard's coalition, moved the initial motion and said they now planned to seek a ban on Canberra sending asylum seekers to third countries without parliamentary approval.

If passed by the lower house -- possible on current numbers -- the ban would almost certainly succeed in the Senate, where the Greens will shortly assume the balance of power.

"Parliament needs to have its say, because these third country deals carry heavy costs to taxpayers, as well as Australia's reputation for compassion and humanity," said Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

"There have been many fears raised by MPs and senators about the impending expulsion of unaccompanied children and families to Malaysia and elsewhere."

The vote comes as an Australian delegation headed to Geneva to smooth negotiations over the swap with the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, which has expressed concern about the inclusion of unaccompanied minors.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen played down the talks, saying the plan's finer details were still being thrashed out and a visit to Geneva was "singularly unsurprising".

"This is quite a complex operational arrangement and you would expect that Malaysia, Australia, the UNHCR would want to spend a bit of time making sure we get the details right," Bowen told Sky News.

He dismissed suggestions that the Greens motion was a fatal blow.

"We're the ones with the responsibility to break the people smugglers business model and nobody should underestimate our resolve to do that," he said.

"We will prosecute the case vigorously, inside the parliament and outside the parliament for this arrangement."

Both the Greens and conservatives oppose the Malaysia deal -- the latter arguing for a return to harsh policies of detaining boatpeople on remote Pacific islands; the former wanting detainees freed into the community.

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