Australia and US sign pact to swap refugees

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The Independent Online

An agreement signed by Australia and the United States to "swap" refugees was denounced as bizarre and illogical yesterday. The deal could see Asian people intercepted en route to Australia and being flown across the world to the US, and Cuban and Haitian refugees hoping for a new life in the US being transplanted to Australia.

The Australian government said yesterday the aim of both countries was to deter illegal immigrants, by preventing them from settling in the destination of their choice. Only people established as genuine refugees will be eligible, and a maximum of 400 a year will be exchanged.

Australia already detains most asylum-seekers before they reach the mainland, then sends them to the impoverished Pacific island of Nauru to be processed. Some languish there for several years, although most are eventually recognised as having a genuine claim.

Those established as legitimate refugees are still regarded as queue-jumpers by Australia, which has been trying without success to persuade third countries to resettle them. It seems to have finally achieved that end with a like-minded government and close political ally.

Thousands of Cuban and Haitian "boat people" are picked up every year en route to the US and detained at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay. They could now end up in Australia, an unfamiliar country with which they have few cultural links.

While some critics called the scheme inhumane, others warned it could backfire. The US is a highly desirable destination, and politicians and human rights groups predicted that the plan would encourage more people, not fewer, to embark on the dangerous ocean voyage to Australia.

The opposition Labour Party spokesman on immigration, Tony Burke, said: "If you are in one of the refugee camps around the world, there is no more attractive destination than to think you can get a ticket to the USA.

"What Prime Minister John Howard is doing is saying to the people around the world, 'if you want to get to the US, the way to it is to hop on a boat and go to Christmas Island (the nearest Australian territory)'."

For Australia, the problem is less significant. Since it introduced hardline policies in 2001, including intercepting asylum-seekers at sea and processing them offshore, the number of "illegal" arrivals has dwindled to a trickle. Even before those controls, a maximum of 4,000 people a year were arriving unauthorised on Australian shores.

The policies have long been condemned by the UN and organisations including Amnesty International, which question whether Australia meets its international obligations towards refugees.

The first people to be swapped could be 83 Sri Lankan and eight Burmese asylum-seekers currently being processed in Nauru.

Mr Howard said yesterday the deal "will drive home the point that this country will not compromise in relation to illegal immigration".

The Immigration minister, Kevin Andrews, said: "We are concerned to ensure the integrity of our border-protection system ... It's a problem that many countries around the world share, and that's why we're trying to find regional, if not global, solutions."

Mr Andrews denied that Australia would be seen as a back-door to the US, since refugees could be sent to other third countries, he said.

But David Manne, of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre in Melbourne, said: "This is a ridiculous and bizarre refugee swap which defies logic. It does not relieve Australia of its protection obligations to refugees, which, in sending them to Nauru, it clearly violates.

"It's propping up a policy which has comprehensively failed in human, and even financial, terms."