KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 2 — A young boy — among 54 boatpeople intercepted by Canberra on Sunday and now destined for Malaysia — is set to test the Gillard administration’s resolve over a controversial asylum swap deal, a leading Australian newspaper said today.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that he is the only child, along with four women and 49 men claiming to be from Afghanistan or Pakistan, who will be the first batch of asylum seekers to be processed under the so-called Malaysian Solution that has seen strident protests from human rights activists in both countries.
Australia’s Labour government has seen its popularity erode over the deal which it insists will stem human trafficking despite a Parliament motion condemning it due to concerns over Malaysia’s treatment of refugees.
The deal will see 800 asylum seekers transferred to Malaysia, which is not a signatory of the United Nations’ covenant on refugees, while Australia will resettle 4,000 refugees from Malaysia over four years and foot the bill of nearly RM1 billion.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said federal police officers would force asylum seekers to board the plane to Malaysia if they refused to obey instructions.
Canberra has also insisted there will be no ‘‘blanket exemptions’’ but Immigration Minister Chris Bowen insisted that the ‘‘vulnerabilities’’ of asylum seekers would be taken into account before dispatching them by plane to Kuala Lumpur.
Australia’s oldest newspaper quoted Bowen as saying “it’s not a voluntary arrangement. People aren’t going to be given the choice as to whether to go back to Malaysia” when asked if he was prepared to let force be used to put children on aircraft.
Australian police are entitled to use Tasers, batons, tear gas, capsicum spray and handcuffs but internal guidelines insist officers use ‘‘minimum force reasonably necessary.”
The Sydney Morning Herald also quoted Acting Opposition Leader Julie Bishop as saying that the deal was at risk of unravelling.
‘‘Already it’s evident that the people-smuggling syndicates will put pressure on this deal by sending more boats,’’ Bishop said.
The Australian had reported yesterday that at least two more asylum boats were being prepared as Indonesian smugglers looked to exploit loopholes in the deal.
In Malaysia, concerns over a biometric system “riddled with problems” used to register migrants and reports of scalps taking advantage of an ongoing amnesty programme for illegal immigrants are raising further questions over its readiness to deal with incoming asylum seekers.