UNDER the asylum seeker swap deal, which comes into effect from midnight, Malaysia will accept 800 asylum seekers in exchange for Australia taking 4000 bona fide refugees over four years.
However, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has warned that the agreement is not expected to completely halt the traffic of asylum-seeker boats.
“People will try it on and the battle against people smugglers is not won in a day, it’s not won with a signature. It’s won over time,” he told AAP.
“But I think it will very much change the dynamic for people’s decisions to make that journey.”
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard told reporters in Canberra the deal would “smash the people smugglers’ business model”.
In Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian home minister said it would send a signal that people smugglers should “not look especially to Australia or Malaysia as a safe-haven for them to profit on the misery of those who are not in the position to defend themselves”.
It’s understood the Australian government expects further boat arrivals in the coming weeks, meaning the first tranche of asylum seekers covered under the deal could be expected to be heading to Malaysia within the next month.
The ratification of the agreement comes more than two months after it was first announced by Ms Gillard, during which time 11 boats have been intercepted off northwestern Australia, delivering another 567 asylum seekers.
But those asylum seekers will now be processed in Australia, after the government reversed a previous commitment they would be sent to a third country because a possible deal with Papua New Guinea had been delayed.
Once the arrangement is fully operational, asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat will be transferred to Malaysia within 72 hours, after they have passed security checks by Malaysian authorities.
The cost of the deal will be borne entirely by Australia, at a price of $292 million over four years.
Australia will also assist Malaysia in returning failed asylum seekers currently held in Malaysia to their countries of origin.
The agreement has the backing of both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Ms Gillard promised transferees would be treated with dignity and respect.
“They will not be arrested and not be caned,” she said.
Malaysia has given guarantees that those transferred will be treated in accordance with human rights standards.
After an initial period of up to 45 days in detention facilities monitored by UNHCR and the IOM, transferees will be moved into the community and will be permitted to work and given access to education and health care.
They will also be given identification cards, to be jointly issued by the Malaysian and Australian governments.
Despite the expectation of further arrivals to Australia, Mr Bowen and Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein insisted the agreement would send a clear signal that both countries were serious about stopping people smuggling.
“As immigration minister I hope I never get another call telling me that people have drowned trying to make it to Australia and that children as young as two months old have drowned trying to come to Australia,” Mr Bowen said.
Refugee advocates on Monday criticised the deal, arguing those who come from Australia will be treated differently to the 93,000 refugees already in Malaysia, creating a two-tiered system.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the deal was “an admission of failure”.
“Today the government has been forced to back down,” he told reporters in Sydney.
“This is a one-off bilateral deal with a use-by date.”