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NEWS UPDATES 7 July 2009

Australia pushes Malaysia to help curb people-smuggling

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Malaysia appealed for international help to curb people-smuggling, amid talks with Australian leaders who are pushing for action to close down illegal migration routes, AFP reported.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is due to arrive here later Monday to pressure Malaysia on the thousands of illegal immigrants hit by wars and the global slump who are reportedly headed to Australia.

After talks with Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, his Malaysian counterpart Anifah Aman said the country could not alone stop its territory being used as a migration route.

"This is not just Malaysia's problem, there is a pull-push factor. We have to look at the overall scenario, the origin of these people, what problems they are facing and how we can help them," he told a joint conference.

"Malaysia has a very long coastline and this is where we need assistance from other countries," he said, adding that the country needed extra funding and equipment to reduce the passage of illegal migrants.

Rudd and Smith will later make a rare joint call on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak during a flying visit en route to Germany and the 17-nation Major Economies Forum (MEF) in Italy.

"Malaysia is an important economic partner of Australia, an important security partner and important for us also in combating the real problem of people-smuggling," Rudd told reporters earlier.

"I'll only be on the ground for a few hours but it struck me as a great opportunity to spend a few hours on some practical questions given that people-smuggling is a real challenge for us, the Indonesians, the Malaysians and all countries within the region," he added.

Illegal immigration is a hot political issue in Australia, which has long grappled with the arrival of boatloads of refugees prepared to make the risky voyage from areas hit by conflict and economic hardship.

Australia's navy last month stopped a boat off the northwest coast carrying 194 asylum-seekers, the biggest number in eight years and raising this year's total to 825, compared to just 179 for the whole of 2008.

Australian media say that up to 10,000 immigrants from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Iraq are massing in Malaysia for passage to Australia by people-smugglers.

The developments forced Rudd, under fire for relaxing the tough stance of his predecessor John Howard, to defend his policy as "hardline and sensible".

"What we see worldwide is a large increase in the number of illegal people movements right around Asia and beyond," he said on Monday.

"Therefore the active cooperation between ourselves and regional governments on security, on intelligence, on border control is really important."

Smith, who arrived in Malaysia ahead of Rudd, acknowledged the joint visit was "unusual" but said it showed traditionally fraught relations with Malaysia were improving.

"We'll of course also be having very serious conversations with the Malaysians about our joint efforts against people-smuggling," Smith said Sunday before departing.

Rudd last year rolled back Howard's policy, under which many refugees were locked up for years in detention camps, and introduced mandatory six-monthly case reviews in a bid to speed up processing.

On Monday, the conservative opposition repeated its calls for a stronger stance, claiming Rudd's move was encouraging refugees.

"Kevin Rudd having a cup of coffee with people in Malaysia is not going to be having the people-smugglers sitting up there in Southeast Asia quaking in their boots," Liberal Party frontbencher Scott Morrison told Sky News.


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