Malaysia and Australia sealed a pact Monday to swap refugees in a contentious new strategy aimed at deterring asylum seekers from undertaking perilous boat journeys to Australia.
The deal will see Australia send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia over the next four years in exchange for Australia resettling 4,000 registered refugees currently languishing in this Southeast Asian nation.
Both governments announced the deal in May but were forced to fine-tune it amid objections by opposition politicians in their countries and human rights groups that criticize the treatment of about 93,000 refugees now living in Malaysia, which has not signed the U.N. Convention on Refugees.
Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein and Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen signed the agreement at a Kuala Lumpur hotel, where about 15 opposition-backed activists gathered to protest the plan.
Bowen called it a "bold and cutting-edge deal," adding that the 800 asylum seekers sent by Australia will be allowed to legally work in Malaysia and have access to education and health care, unlike the refugees already here.
Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard told reporters in Canberra that the deal would "smash the people smugglers' business model."
"My message to anyone who is considering paying money to a people smuggler and risking their life at sea and perhaps the lives of their family members as well, is do not do that in the false hope that you will be able to have your claim processed in Australia," Gillard said.
Australia has long drawn people from poor, often war-ravaged places hoping to start a new life, with more than 6,200 asylum seekers arriving by boat last year. Most are from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq, and use Malaysia or Indonesia as a transit point for traveling to Australia.
Hishammuddin pledged that asylum seekers sent to Malaysia would be treated according to the U.N. refugee agency's international standards. They will be placed at a processing center for six weeks before being allowed to live in public.
"The allegation that Malaysia is not fair toward refugees in this country is completely untrue," Hishammuddin said. He declined to say why Malaysia was allowing the 800 asylum seekers better conditions compared to the current refugee population.
Most of the refugees now in Malaysia are Myanmarese people who fled persecution in their country. They usually survive on odd jobs but are not officially allowed to work or attend public schools. Rights advocates have said some are also occasionally arrested as illegal immigrants and risk being whipped with a rattan cane.
Activists who protested Monday's signing ceremony, including one opposition member of Parliament, held posters that read "Shame on you, Gillard and Bowen" and "Welcome to Malaysia: One of the worst places for refugees."
New York-based Human Rights Watch also criticized the agreement, saying it could "start a wider erosion of protection for refugees throughout the Asia-Pacific region."
"Australia is using Malaysia as a dumping ground for boat people it does not want," Phil Robertson, the group's deputy Asia director, said in a statement. "Assurances so far ... that the 800 migrants will be looked after with dignity (in Malaysia) are hardly convincing."
Australia's opposition voiced pessimism that the deal would succeed in its goals.
"This is the latest chapter in a three-year saga of broken promises, backflips and bungling in our border protection system," said Julie Bishop, deputy leader of the opposition Liberal Party.
Australia says it will pay the full cost of the swap deal, estimated at 292 million Australian dollars ($316 million). Only asylum seekers who reach Australia starting this week will be sent to Malaysia, and children would not be exempted, Bowen said.
Australia faces frequent protests at its overcrowded Christmas Island center, where it processes asylum seekers. Last week, police fired tear gas and shock grenades to quell a riot by inmates who started fires.
Associated Press writers Sean Yoong in Kuala Lumpur and Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.