For Swe Lang, talk of life in Australia brings a wry smile. Fleeting as the grin is, it is the only sign of joy from the 15-year-old, whose grim experience is etched into his face. Swe is a member of the Karen minority in Burma, and fled his homeland with friend Tan Myen, also 15, after the Burmese military attempted to forcibly conscript them. The pair left their family and joined a group heading for Thailand, then continued further south to Malaysia.

The two arrived last month, and join the estimated 80,000 Burmese refugees now living in the south-east Asian country. Only their youth has spared them an extended stay in immigration detention. While Swe smiles at the prospect of living in Australia, the reality is he’s unlikely to experience it under the agreement between Australia and Malaysia floated earlier this month.

The 4000 refugees set to come to Australia over the next four years under the deal is a significant number, but still only a relatively small percentage of the 90,000 total refugees estimated to be living in Malaysia. That ratio, and the fact that no detail has yet been given on who will be selected and how, means refugee organisations in Malaysia are not getting excited about life in Australia just yet.

Burmese arrivals in Malaysia tend to associate closely with community groups from their home region — Chin, Shan and Karen are among the most prominent from the 20 subcommunities represented. Community leaders from several Burmese migrant groups indicated to Crikey they were welcoming of Malaysia’s mooted deal with Australia, but needed more detail. They requested their names and communities not be published, because of the risk of putting in danger the status of community members in dealing with Malaysian authorities.

Malaysia has become home to a steady stream of Burmese refugees, escaping the land confiscation and forced labour of the country’s ruling junta. Many of those escaping, such as Swe and Tan, are bypassing the refugee camps on the Thai border because they offer little prospect of earning an income.

But life in Malaysia is still tough for many refugees. The country has not been welcoming to them, fearing they are an impediment to the country’s effort to reach developed nation status by the end of the the decade.

While most arrivals spend a burst of a few months in detention when they first arrive, it is the years afterward they spend in legal limbo and with little financial support that proves most tricky. Through formally prohibited from working, many take jobs on the margins of the economy, in construction, hospitality or as domestic assistants.

“Nobody will come and feed us,” said the leader of one Burmese community group. “To survive, we have to work. We do the jobs Malaysians don’t want to do.”

With little or no state support available, the community has developed programs to look after its own. On the middle floors of one run-down housing estate, one ethnic group has established a school for 150 students, where they can learn in English as well as their home language. As the community leader states: “If we don’t teach them our own culture now, then in 10 years the only place they’ll be able to see it is in a museum.”

Elsewhere, an apartment has been established as a temporary home for more than 30 refugees, reliant on contributions from other community members and food donations from a local church to survive.

With Malaysia an unwilling host, the arrivals face a prolonged period of uncertainty. Andika Wahab, refugee co-ordinator for Malaysian human rights organisation Suaram, says he’s aware of cases of people waiting five years, 10 years and in some cases more than 20 years for their situation to be resolved.

“During this time, they cannot work and they cannot get an education,” he said. “It means they get desperate and angry.”

Underpinning all this is Malaysia’s refusal to sign the United Nations refugee convention, which would set minimum standards for treatment. Wahab reckons the government’s reluctance stems from a fear that it will increase the number of arrivals. “They see it as a threat to national security,” he said.

Malaysia’s refusal to sign the convention means the work in processing asylum claims falls on the shoulders of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. While the Burmese community leaders say the UNHCR does a decent job, its benefits are limited given Malaysia’s obstinance.

The flip side of the proposed deal is that 800 new arrivals to Australia will be sent to Malaysia for the determination of their refugee status. It is this aspect of the deal that angers many refugee advocates in both countries, given it means they will initially be housed in Malaysia’s immigration detention facilities.

“Nothing short of hell” is how Andrew Khoo, chair of the human rights committee at the Malaysian Bar, describes conditions inside. He describes the facilities as overcrowded, leaving detainees with poor sanitation and a lack of access to basic health care. His assessment is backed up by several investigations into the state of the facilities, as Crikey reported last week.

“These facilities are extremely overcrowded,” an Amnesty report last year concluded. “They fail in fundamental ways to meet basic international standards and generally accepted good practice in the treatment of detainees and the management of institutions. “Detainees in immigration centres lack bedding, regular access to clean water, medication and sufficient food. They spend most of their time in their cells with no opportunities for exercise, organised worship or other activities. Diseases spread quickly, and fights are common. Detainees under age 18 are held together with adults, in violation of international law.”

The Malaysian Bar is opposed to the refugee trade deal, and Khoo points out several practical flaws.

He says the agreement’s claim that there would be “no preferential treatment” for the 800 arrivals who come via Australia over the 90,000 refugees already here would make it impossible to meet the deal’s requirement that “transferees will be treated with dignity and respect and in accordance with human rights standards” given Malaysia’s current policy.

He also points to the fact that community groups — most of them ethnic Burmese — play a crucial role in helping refugees. The 800 sent from Australia are more likely to be from Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan, places that lack an established community presence in Malaysia. (The country does, however, have a strong Tamil community, potentially making life a little easier for one group well represented among boat arrivals to Australia.)

For its part, the UNHCR is generally positive towards the agreement, but is seeking further discussion to see how it would work in practice. “We understand the agreement could contribute to better co-operation and burden sharing among countries in the region,” Yante Ismail, a UNHCR spokeswoman, told Crikey.

The latest deal is not the first time Malaysia has acted as a temporary stop for refugees before coming to Australia. During the 1970s and 1980s, people fleeing Vietnam often spent time wallowing in refugee camps in Malaysia before they were given access to Australia.

Then, as now, Malaysia was keen to rid itself of the problem of unwelcome arrivals.