Thursday, April 26, 2007

Human rights groups condemn Australia's refugee swap with the US

American based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned the deal between the US and Australia to trade refugees housed at Guantanamo for those held in Nauru. HRW said the deal upends international refugee standards. “Refugees are human beings, not products that countries can broker and trade,” said Bill Frelick, HRW Refugee Policy director, “[it is] a deal that bargains with lives and flouts international law.”

The two countries announced the deal last week in Washington. Under its conditions, Australia will initially transfer 83 Sri Lankan and eight Burmese refugees from Nauru to the US with a view to sending up to 200 a year. In return Australia will take 200 Cuban and Haitian refugees now being held at the US Navy base (not the prison) at Guantanamo Bay. The deal is designed to frustrate refugees from joining family and community members in a nearby country. Both the US and Australia are detaining refugees offshore to avoid their legal obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Of particular interest here is Article 32: expulsion which says nations “shall not expel a refugee lawfully in their territory save on grounds of national security or public order” and even then only after a “reached in accordance with due process of law”.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews said Australia would only accept refugees from the US for resettlement if their claims had been found to be genuine. Prime Minister John Howard has also defended the swap saying it will act as a deterrent to people smuggling. "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,” he said.

But the Labor Party thinks that the move will send exactly the opposite message. Opposition leader Kevin Rudd says the deal will make Australia a “halfway house” to the US. "It strikes me as passing strange that we now will be playing swapsies," he said. "I am struggling with where all that goes in terms of the logic."

Meanwhile the US was also pouring cold water over the deal’s significance. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the deal an "informal agreement" that "does not create legal obligations." "The arrangement does not call for an exchange or a swap of individuals," he said. "And no person ... who is referred would be forced to accept resettlement." He also said no referrals have yet been made for the program.

Refugee groups also see the move as political expediency, yet another example of using asylum seekers as a scapegoat in an election year. But the quick-fix will do nothing to help overcome the world-wide flood of refugees. The move does not address the underlying reasons why people become refugees in the first place: either through war, or through the economic reasons of poverty, lack of health care, jobs, housing and water shortage.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, one of Australia's leading asylum seeker aid, health and advocacy organisations also expressed their outrage over the proposal. They say it is cruel to resettle asylum seekers in countries where they had no cultural connections. Their spokeswoman Pamela Curr said "the refugees were Australia’s our responsibility and the new policy was “shredding” the UN refugee convention. “This is not a container load of washing machines that we've decided to reject,” she said “These are human beings”.

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