Swap deal sparks surge in refugees
May 10, 2007 12:00am
Article from: Herald-Sun
THE Opposition and refugee advocates have demanded the Howard Government scrap its asylum-seeker exchange program with the US after news that hundreds of Haitians are risking a sea voyage in the hope of getting to Australia.
“There's no doubt the spike in the number of people who have come, the number of people risking their lives on the high seas, appears to be directly linked to this bizarre policy which needs to be reviewed immediately,” Opposition immigration spokesman Tony Burke said.
Amnesty International in Australia and the US has said the exchange program is akin to human trafficking.
“Our major concern is that it's a trade in humans, it's not providing a permanent solution and it can potentially separate families,” Amnesty's refugee co-ordinator, Dr Graham Thom, said yesterday.
“We can't see how it would do what the Government says it would do . . . people who want to flee persecution are going to flee anyway and the vast majority won't care if they end up in Australia or the US.”
Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has defended the exchange deal, saying it was designed to stop illegal immigrants selecting Australia as their destination of choice.
Mr Andrews has also said there was no evidence an increase in Haitian asylum-seekers trying to get to the US mainland were aware of the Australian exchange program.
The US Coast Guard intercepted 899 people from the impoverished Caribbean island of Haiti attempting to make the sea voyage to Florida in April and May, following the US-Australian government signing of a refugee exchange program in early April.
US authorities said there were just five Haitians intercepted the month before the exchange program announcement, and 769 in all of 2006.
Coast Guard Lt-Cdr Chris O'Neil told the Herald Sun on Tuesday officials would begin to question those intercepted about their knowledge of the exchange deal and whether Australia was intended as their eventual destination.
The program allows Australia to send asylum-seekers it intercepts in excised territories to the US, and for America to send Cuban and Haitian asylum-seekers here.
A vessel carrying up to 150 Haitians capsized last week and at least 54 people drowned.
“We now have in one month more than the entire number of people who came in the whole of the previous year,” Mr Burke said.
Mr Burke said Prime Minister John Howard's exchange policy had given people-smugglers a new “marketing tool” to lure people into paying for the voyage.
“There's actually been a message sent throughout the world with the refugee swap . . . whether you go to the United States or whether you go to Australia, if you risk your life on the high seas you're going to end up in a wealthy nation.”