Australia-US refugee swap under attack

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2007, 12:00am

The United States and Australia are trying to avoid their international legal responsibilities through a deal to exchange hundreds of refugees held at offshore detention camps, Human Rights Watch says.

Under the agreement signed by Canberra and Washington on Tuesday, about 90 asylum seekers - Sri Lankans and Burmese - held at an Australian-run immigration detention camp on the impoverished Pacific island nation of Nauru could be resettled in the US if they qualify as genuine refugees.

Australia, in turn, would resettle up to 200 Cubans and Haitians annually from asylum seekers intercepted at sea while trying to get to the US and held at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack described it as an informal arrangement that carried no legal obligations.

'In the spirit of our mutual humanitarian traditions and commitment to assist individuals in need of international protection, the US and Australia are willing to consider resettling up to 200 individuals in a calendar year referred by the other country under this arrangement,' Mr McCormack said in Washington. No refugee would be forced to accept such resettlement.

Prime Minister John Howard said the plan would drive home the message to asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters that they would have no chance of living in the country. 'People who want to come to Australia will be deterred by anything that sends a message that getting to the Australian mainland illegally is not going to happen,' Mr Howard said.

But Bill Frelick, Human Rights Watch refugee policy director, said Australia and the US wanted to further avoid their responsibilities under the 1951 Refugee Convention, claiming they had already breached it by housing asylum seekers offshore with no access to the national legal systems.

'The trade deal violates the spirit of the legal obligation not to expel a refugee, except for national security reasons and only after a decision in accordance with due process standards,' Mr Frelick said.

The only possible reason for the deal was to deter future asylum seekers from trying to reach either country by boat, Mr Frelick said.

'Yet, international refugee-protection principles hold that detention and similar measures should never be used solely as a deterrent to other would-be refugees,' he added.

The deal also violated long-standing principles in refugee law that countries should endeavour to keep refugees unified with family members, he said, adding that many Cuban and Haitian refugees had family in the United States.

Both countries have said asylum seekers will be detained offshore and resettled in other countries where possible to deter others from attempting the same treacherous ocean voyages to their shores.

But critics say the plan will encourage a new wave of asylum seekers to Australia by presenting their destination as a back door to the United States.

Up to 400 refugees could be exchanged between the two countries - a maximum of 200 from each - under the scheme annually. The deal will be reviewed in two years.

Officials say the arrangement is not a refugee-for-refugee exchange, and there is no requirement to match the number of refugees.