new arrivals as malaysia deal closer

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    NICK BUTTERLY and ANDREW TILLETT CANBERRA, The West AustralianJune 24, 2011, 9:55 am

    Australian authorities early this morning intercepted an asylum seeker boat near of Christmas Island - coinciding with the Gillard Government being on the verge of sealing the refugee swap deal with Kuala Lumpur.

    HMAS Launceston and HMAS Broome intercepted the boat, which was carrying 65 passengers and two crew.

    It is understood Australian authorities received a phone call from another country but were already aware the boat was on its way after being spotted by a RAAF surveillance plane.

    It is the seventh boat to reach Australian waters since Julia Gillard announced on May 7 the outline of a deal with Malaysia to send 800 boat people there in return for Australia resettling 4000 people approved as refugees.

    The latest group face an uncertain future and will join 274 men, women and children from the earlier boats languishing on Christmas Island.

    The Government has said these people would be transferred to an unspecified third country for processing but Malaysia is reluctant to accept them, while the other option of sending them to Papua New Guinea is under a cloud as talks have stalled because of political instability within the PNG Government.

    However, the deal with Malaysia could be finalised within days.

    The West Australian understands the deal is expected to go before the Malaysian cabinet today and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen could ratify the pact soon after.

    The United Nations refugee agency is also believed to be satisfied with the treatment asylum seekers sent to Malaysia will receive after raising concerns during the sensitive negotiations.

    The finalisation of the deal could prove an embarrassment to the Opposition, with shadow immigration spokesman Scott Morrison due in Malaysia today to investigate conditions asylum seekers could be living under if they are returned under the deal.

    The refugee swap deal will see Canberra send 800 boat people to Malaysia in return for Kuala Lumpur sending 4000 certified refugees.

    The Gillard Government announced the plan six weeks ago and has been under pressure from the Opposition to explain why the final ratification has taken so long to materialise.

    Mr Bowen said yesterday the Government was at a "very advanced" stage of negotiations.

    The Government has also been under pressure over how asylum seekers transferred to Malaysia may be treated, with the Opposition and human rights advocates warning some could be caned or abused as cheap labour.

    But the Government claims it has managed to negotiate special treatment for those boat people sent to Malaysia.

    The endorsement of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for any deal is crucial for Labor's left faction to support the policy after backbenchers such as Fremantle MP Melissa Parke raised concerns about children being sent to Malaysia.

    However, the Greens are trying to change migration laws so that parliamentary approval is required before any asylum seekers can be sent to another country.

    Meanwhile, the Government insists it is on track to have the majority of children out of detention by the end of this month.

    As at June 17, Mr Bowen had approved community detention for 1343 people, including 693 children. Of those, 396 children are living in the community with another 135 to join them within days.
    There are 995 minors in the immigration system either detained in camps or living in the community
 
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