A boat load of 32 asylum seekers found in Australian waters will become the first to be sent to Malaysia, Papua New Guinea or another Asia-Pacific country under the government's contentious new strategy to deter future refugees from making the same journey, an official said on Saturday.
The government last week struck a deal with Malaysia to swap asylum seekers for bona fide refugees and is negotiating with Papua New Guinea to accept hundreds of people who have paid smugglers to bring them to Australia by boat.
The message to asylum seekers is that Australia will not accept any more of them.
The navy intercepted the latest boat load of asylum seekers suspected to be from Afghanistan and Pakistan off the northwest coastal town of Broome overnight, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said.
They would be housed in a detention center at Christmas Island, an Australian territory near Indonesia, temporarily before they were sent to another country where their refugee applications would be processed, Bowen said.
Bowen said Malaysia had a right to reject any of the individuals on board. Papua New Guinea was not the only other country in the Asia-Pacific region which Australia was asking to accept its asylum seekers, he said.
"I am not going to flag which country these people will be sent to, but they will be held at Christmas Island, pending removal to a third country," Bowen told reporters.
Lawyers and human rights groups have condemned Australia's deal with Malaysia, under which Malaysia will accept 800 asylum seekers who entered Australia illegally by sea in return for Australia settling 4,000 registered refugees living in Malaysia.
Lim Chee Wee, president of the lawyers' association Malaysian Bar, labeled the deal misguided and irresponsible and accused Australia of trying to dodge its international obligations.
Australia was effectively consigning 800 people to a "degrading, demeaning and dehumanizing" life of uncertainty and suffering because Malaysia was not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, he said.
The Law Council of Australia, another lawyers' group, called the deal an inappropriate solution to a complex problem.
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.