Barbara McMahon in SydneyWednesday April 18, 2007
Guardian UnlimitedAsylum seekers intercepted at sea while trying to reach Australia are to be sent to the United States under a controversial refugee-swapping scheme designed to deter illegal migrants.
Under the plan announced by Australia's immigration minister, Kevin Andrews, some of the boat people picked up in international waters off the coast of Australia will be re-settled halfway around the world.
In exchange, Australia will accept asylum seekers currently being held in detention at the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, mostly Cubans and Haitians who have also been intercepted at sea.
The agreement between the two countries, ratified in Washington last week, will involve each country processing about 200 of each others refugees a year.
Commenting on the scheme in a radio interview, Australia's prime minister, John Howard, who has a famously tough stance on illegal immigration, claimed it would deter people smuggling.
"I think 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.
The opposition Labour party criticised the plan. The party's leader, Kevin Rudd, said the policy would simply establish Australia as a halfway house for asylum seekers wanting to reach the United States.
Refugee organizations expressed outrage at the scheme, saying it would be cruel to resettle asylum seekers in countries where they have no cultural connections.
Pamela Curr of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said: "This is not a container load of washing machines that we've decided to reject. These are human beings.
"They're our responsibility and this policy is shredding the United Nations refugee convention."
The first group to go to the US will probably be 83 Sri Lankans and eight Burmese people, who were picked up in unseaworthy wooden boats in February and who have since been detained on the Pacific island of Nauru, where Australia processes some of its asylum seekers.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007