A boatload of asylum-seekers intercepted in Australian waters will be the first to be sent to Malaysia under the swap deal.
The boat was spotted by aircraft near Scott Reef, off Australia’s northwest coast, Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor said in a statement. A spokeswoman told Reuters it was the first boat intercepted since the deal with Malaysia was signed on July 25.
“The passengers will be taken to Christmas Island for pre-transfer assessments, pending removal to Malaysia,” O’Connor said in the statement.
The boat is thought to be carrying 54 asylum-seekers and two crew members.
The deal with Malaysia followed several months of talks between the countries. Australia will accept 4,000 asylum-seekers already in Malaysia whose claims have been processed, in return for Malaysia taking 800 unprocessed asylum-seekers from Australia.
The swap deal is badly needed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose popularity is at record lows and who is trying to fend off criticisms that her government is soft on asylum-seekers, a hot political issue in Australia.
The agreement follows violence and protests at detention centres, including the main processing centre on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, which is at capacity.
The Australian government says the scheme is aimed at breaking the business model of people-smugglers who run the often ramshackle boats, which mainly leave from Indonesia.
Rights advocates have criticised the deal, but several other countries in the region have expressed interest in forming similar arrangements with Australia.
Australia has more than 6,000 asylum-seekers in detention, originating from countries including Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Malaysia has about 93,000, according to UN figures.