Australia strikes deal with Malaysia on asylum-seekers

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia said on Friday it has struck a deal with Malaysia to disrupt the transit of asylum-seekers through the South-east Asian nation to Indonesia, where they board boats heading for Australian waters.

The arrival of thousands of boatpeople has for years proved a major political headache in Canberra and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison estimated that more than half of those who reach Australia come through Malaysia.

He travelled to Kuala Lumpur this week for meetings with Home Affairs Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and said a series of agreements on "operational cooperation" were thrashed out.

"I was pleased to reboot our cooperation with Malaysia," he told a regular weekly briefing on border protection operations, adding that Malaysia was a "critical geographic link in the people smugglers' chain to Australia".

"Disrupting arrivals at KIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport) or across the Thai-Malay border or preventing the passage to Sumatra across the Malacca Strait, is as critical, and I would suggest even more critical, than anything we do once that boat leaves Indonesia," he said.

He did not go into detail of the agreements but flagged better information and intelligence sharing and said joint operations on people-smuggling would start immediately.

Kuala Lumpur also agreed to broaden tighter visa arrangements that currently apply to Iranians entering Malaysia to include Iraqis and Syrians, with all three nationalities representing a large number of asylum-seeker arrivals in Australia.

"We will continue our dialogue on further reforms and exclusions to visas on other arrival arrangements," Morrison said, adding that the relationship with Kuala Lumpur was in "tip-top shape".

Canberra clinched a deal with Malaysia in 2011 to transfer 800 boatpeople to the South-east Asian country to deter refugees from making the risky journey by removing the incentive of being resettled in Australia.

But the plan has never been implemented and was shot down in the Australian parliament by the conservative opposition, led by Tony Abbott, which is now in government.

At the time, Abbott and Morrison made clear they objected to the fact that Malaysia has not signed the UN refugee convention.

After the plan collapsed, Canberra reopened refugee processing centres on the Pacific nation of Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, which remain in operation.

Since assuming office in September, the Abbott government has been implementing its hardline "Stop the Boats" policy, which it insisted would involve controversially turning back people-smuggling boats to Indonesia.

So far, the government has refused to say if it has carried out the threat.

At the briefing, Morrison said two boats had been intercepted in the past week, carrying 166 people who were taken to Australia's Christmas Island, a sharp reduction in the weekly arrivals from several months ago.

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