SYDNEY - The Australian government on Thursday said it will give Malaysia two customs boats as a gift, part of a strategy to tackle people-smuggling in the region.
Most asylum-seeker boats bound for Australia make the precarious journey from Indonesia, but Malaysia is sometimes used as a transit country to transport people through the Thai-Malay border to Sumatra across the Malacca Strait.
The Bay Class vessels, which Australia is phasing out, will be handed over in mid-2015 with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison calling it a "practical operational strategy to stem this criminal trade".
It follows Canberra giving two patrol boats to Colombo for similar reasons late in 2013. Dozens of boats bound for Australia have also departed from Sri Lanka for what can be a three-week voyage.
Mr Morrison last year said a critical plank of the government's policy was to disrupt asylum-seekers crossing the Thai-Malay border and prevent their passage to Indonesia. "Malaysia is a key partner in regional and bilateral efforts against people-smuggling, particularly important due to its ongoing use as a transit country for people seeking to reach Australia by boat," he said on Thursday. "These vessels will offer enhanced search and rescue and interception capacity to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency's border protection operations.
"This will improve Malaysia's capability to preserve life at sea while shutting down people-smuggling syndicates."
The boats, which have been a mainstay of Australian maritime surveillance since the late 1990s but are now being phased out, have a range of 1,000 nautical miles and are crewed by 12 officers.
Since assuming power last year, the conservative government has taken an increasingly hardline stance against people-smugglers and asylum-seekers under Operation Sovereign Borders.
It includes turning boats back to Indonesia and sending anyone who arrives illegally to Pacific island camps for processing with no chance of settlement in Australia.
Hundreds of asylum-seekers have died making the sea voyage from Indonesia in recent years, but no boats have made it to Australia since Dec 19, according to Mr Morrison.