Australia, U.S. To Transfer Refugees

Australia, U.S. to Transfer Refugees

Associated Press Writer

April 18, 2007, 11:22 PM EDT

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia and the United States have approved a plan to move a few hundred refugees to each other's jurisdiction, the two countries said Wednesday.

Australia said it was a bid by both nations to deter asylum seekers, but critics charged it would likely spur an even bigger wave of migrants.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews said in a statement that the mutual assistance arrangement was signed Tuesday, but U.S. 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.”

No referrals have been made yet, McCormack said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Richard Towle described the deal as “novel,” telling Australian Broadcasting Corp. television the United States is “a highly desirable resettlement outcome for many people.”

Under the deal, around 90 asylum seekers — Sri Lankans and Burmese — currently held at an Australian-run immigration detention camp on the Pacific island nation of Nauru could be resettled in the United States if they qualify as refugees. Up to 200 such people could be sent each year.

Australia, in turn, would resettle up to 200 Cubans and Haitians annually from asylum seekers who are intercepted at sea while trying to get to the U.S. and held at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The prospect of being flown halfway around the world to an unfamiliar country with few cultural links to their homelands would deter Cubans and Haitians from risking the trip to the U.S., Prime Minister John Howard said.

“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 told reporters.

Opposition legislator Tony Burke said many asylum seekers headed for Australia would be more than happy to end up in the U.S. and predicted even more migrants.

Refugees intercepted at sea are taken to Australian island camps while their asylum applications are assessed. Howard's government tries to find other countries willing to take them, but many are eventually allowed into Australia.

Andrews said the plan would not present Australia as a back door to the United States because refugees might also be sent to other countries.

The arrangement was not a refugee-for-refugee exchange, and there was no requirement that the number of refugees transferred be matched by the number received, said Andrews' spokeswoman, Kate Walshe.

Bill Frelick, Human Rights Watch refugee policy director, said Australia and the United States wanted to further avoid their responsibilities under the 1951 Refugee Convention — claiming they 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,” Frelick said in a statement.

Howard says Australia accepts 13,000 refugees a year. The United States received asylum applications from about 55,000 people among the 303,400 who sought refuge in 50 industrialized countries, the U.N. refugee agency said last month.