Malaysia and Australia are expected to sign the 'asylum deal' tomorrow. Despite being a non-signatory to the United Nations' Refugee Convention, Malaysia has been very consistent with its boat people policy, treating them well and allowing them to work and live here although Australia and some developed nations deplore it bluntly.
Under the original proposal – which may by now have been updated during negotiations between the two governments and UNHCR – 800 asylum seekers who have arrived in Australia by boat would be exchanged with 4,000 of Malaysia's already processed refugees.
It needs to be remembered that the Malaysia deal is one part of a more comprehensive policy response to unauthorised boat arrivals that also includes maintaining development assistance in conflict-affected countries, capacity-building in transit countries, especially in South East Asia, and a raft of anti-smuggling measures.
The deal has been widely criticised but both governments deserves some credit. First, it is clearly taking seriously the increase in unauthorised boat arrivals in Australia over the last two years or so, and Malaysia's good record in protecting the refugees.
There is a separate debate to be had about whether what are still relatively small numbers of boat arrivals really merit such a dramatic response, but clearly their political significance outweighs their numerical significance, and both governments had to respond. They have responded within the law, and with the cover of UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees).
The arrival of a further 4,000 refugees would increase by about 50 per cent Australia's 2010 resettlement quota, taking it past Canada to be the second largest refugee resettlement country in the world.
However, critics - especially from some Western human rights organisations - are showing serious concern about the prospects for the 800 asylum seekers who will be exchanged.
As Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and thus is not bound to respect principles such as 'non-refoulment' which guards against refugees being returned home against their will. UNHCR had earlier told Malaysia not to deport them to the country from which they fled.
Human rights activists in Australia and Malaysia have expressed concerns about the detention of asylum seekers here, and the legal system for processing their claims. Together with UNHCR, they had insisted on some safeguards, for example regarding the exchange of children, and monitoring of those who do come to Malaysia.
And Down Under, the critics are that, there is no guarantee that this policy will achieve its ultimate objective, which is to stop the boats arriving in Australia.
For that to happen, prospective asylum seekers need to know – and care – about the possibility that they may end up in Malaysia rather than Australia. And probably more importantly, the smugglers who move them, who will certainly know about the policy, also need to care. If the policy has no direct impact on their businesses, they are unlikely to.
It is also important for a country like Australia that trades on its international reputation for decency — the policy risks attracting serious negative international attention. Already some commentators have observed that Australia is swapping 800 mainly Muslims for 4000 mainly non-Muslims.
Malaysia can always question Australia's motive in 'giving away' the Muslims to us but as a nation of good human spirit, we place the swap (and the agreement) above all, above diplomatic discrepancies and above critics.
I think Malaysia needs to do more in convincing the international community that asylum seekers and the refugees have all this while been treated like others - in some cases much better than any ordinary citizen. They were allowed to work, study and do business although such a conditions are not stipulated in the Convention.
And for all the adverse comments from the Western media and human rights organisation, including UNHCR itself, Malaysia has never asked for a single penny to feed the refugees. And I wonder whether UNHCR and those critics have ever thought of aiding Malaysia?