KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia will accept 800 asylum seekers who entered Australia illegally by sea in a groundbreaking deal between the two countries to tackle people smuggling.
In return, Australia will resettle 4,000 registered refugees living in Malaysia, according to a joint government statement late Saturday. The political opposition in Australia slammed the plan.
Australia has long attracted people from poor, often war-ravaged countries hoping to start a new life, with more than 6,200 asylum seekers arriving in the country by boat last year. Most are from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq, and use Malaysia or Indonesia as a starting point for a dangerous sea journey to Australia.
"This landmark agreement will help take away the product people smugglers are trying to sell — a ticket to Australia," Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a separate statement.
"The key message this will deliver to people smugglers and those seeking to make the dangerous sea voyage to Australia is: do not get on that boat," she said. "Under this arrangement, if you arrive in Australian waters and are taken to Malaysia, you will go to the back of the queue."
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said the agreement is beneficial to both countries and strongly signals that his own nation shouldn't be used as a transit point.
Australia will fully fund the arrangement, the joint statement said, adding that the one-off pilot project aims to "undermine the business model of transnational criminal syndicates, particularly in people smuggling and human trafficking in this region."
The 800 people transferred to Malaysia will have their claims processed by the United Nations, and "those in need of international protection will not be refouled," the statement said.
Both countries will work closely with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration to implement the arrangement, which will be finalized soon, it said.
Australia's opposition leader Tony Abbott said the agreement may be good for Malaysia but was "lousy" for Australia.
"This idea that they will take one and we will take five just risks Malaysia becoming the open back door to Australia," he said.
Opposition treasury spokesman Joe Hockey said it showed the government has no consistent policy on border protection.
"When I first heard about it, I thought kids in the school yard would do a better trading deal than this, but this is trading human beings," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Gillard said the Australian government was engaged in talks with Papua Guinea to build a regional detention center there to process asylum seekers, and that it would be funded by Australia. An earlier proposal to set up such a center in neighboring East Timor was not favored by that country's government.
Since early 2010, Australia has intercepted more than 140 boats carrying asylum seekers. Malaysia has also caught dozens of people embarking on rickety and overcrowded boats to Australia.
The increasing numbers of boat arrivals has become a divisive issue in Australia, with the opposition demanding stricter laws to deter would-be illegal immigrants.