AUSTRALIA and Papua New Guinea have signed a formal agreement that will allow the Gillard government to send asylum seekers to Manus Island for processing.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard and PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill watched as the memorandum of understanding was signed ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders’ summit in the Russian city of Vladivostok today.
The agreement means work on rehabilitating the Howard government-era processing centre on the island can begin immediately.
“Our message to asylum seekers is, do not risk your life on a boat. Do not pay a people smuggler. Stay where you are,'' Ms Gillard told reporters shortly after the signing.
She says the first transfers to the processing centre on Nauru will occur “within weeks”, but it is likely to be some months before anyone is taken to Manus Island.
The memorandum is founded on the principle of 'no advantage' set out in last month's report by former defence chief Angus Houston's expert panel on asylum seeker policy.
“The memorandum is clear. The no-advantage principle is there,'' Ms Gillard said.
“They (asylum seekers) should wait the same amount time for a resettlement opportunity as if they hadn't moved.''
But Mr O'Neill appeared to contradict that when he spoke with Australian reporters.
“I think it's important that we process these people as quickly as possible,'' he said. “The quicker they are processed, the better it is.''
Mr O'Neill says PNG did not insist that Australia meet any preconditions for the re-establishment of the centre, except to “improve conditions'' on the island.
“We are not interested in making money out of the issue,'' he said.
The deal was signed as 99 suspected asylum seekers were found on board a boat near a lagoon at the Cocos Islands.
The Australian Federal Police boarded the boat on the island yesterday. The passengers will undergo basic health and security checks before they are transferred to Christmas Island.
The suspected asylum seeker boat is the fourth to enter Australian waters in the past week.
Ms Gillard also met today with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak for talks on topics including the controversial Malaysian people swap proposal.
Labor has put the policy on hold while it seeks to negotiate improved human rights protections with Malaysia, as recommended by Mr Houston. But the current state of the parliament means it is still unlikely to proceed.
The prime minister will use the APEC summit, starting later today, to push for an accord to further open up the region's higher education market.
She will also seek to shore up support for an agreement that would see APEC's 21 nations slash tariffs on environmental goods to no more than five per cent by the year 2015.
Ms Gillard will also have meetings with the leaders of Japan, Peru, New Zealand and Vietnam before arriving back in Australia on Monday.