The Howard Government seems to be taking the Statue of Liberty at her word with today’s announcement that they’ve signed on to a “refugee exchange” program with the US in which asylum seekers detained on Nauru could be resettled in the US and Cuban refugees held at Guantanamo Bay could be brought to Australia.

“Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,  the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…” goes the saying. And under the new scheme, Australia and the US will each resettle up to 200 refugees processed in the other country every year. The scheme seems to back the Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews’s promise that unauthorised boat arrivals won’t make it to the Australian mainland. It could also solve Government’s perception problem that asylum-seekers are sent to indefinite exile on Nauru.

The Washington Post quotes Prime Minister John Howard on the deal this morning: 

We are not going to have our very generous humanitarian refugee program distorted by people smugglers … What discourages people is the knowledge that they can’t get to the Australian mainland.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews also sold the swap along these lines:

This arrangement will ensure the integrity of the international system of protection and the integrity of Australia’s borders is maintained, by providing protection to those who need it … It also sends a strong deterrence message to people smugglers. 

But on paper it’s not immediately clear how promoting the possibility of asylum-seekers being offered a one-way ticket to the US, land of opportunity, the free, and the hotdog, will act as a deterrent.

First of all, says Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre co-ordinator David Manne, “it is a violation of refugee protection obligations to punish people, asylum-seekers, with the rationale of deterrent … it’s a clear-cut violation of our international obligations to justify penalisation of people by way of deterrents …”.

But disregarding that fact, Manne says “it makes no sense, it defies logic to understand why providing a US option to people would in and of itself be a deterrent”.

Then there’s the cost. The proposal is “outrageously expensive… it comes at a massive and unnecessary expense to the taxpayer,” says Manne. The whole scheme is “based on a fundamental perversion of the international protection system …. Does this provide any assurance to genuine refugees exiled in the future? No,” says Manne.

And setting aside the America’s very magnaminous offer for a moment — what’s in it for them? After all, 200 aslyum-seekers is a drop in the ocean when you consider the thousands of asylum-seekers who try to get into the US each year from Haiti and Cuba. WA rights group ProjectSafeCom‘s press release from this morning offers a conspiracy theory:

The deal “is useful for the US Administration, in the context of the looming closure demands by the US courts, as well as the increasing pressure on the US Administration coming from the changing political landscape in South America, starting with Cuba, over the future of the Guantanamo Bay facility,” WA Rights group Project SafeCom said.

“We could envisage that any transfers to Australia, from Guantanamo Bay will happen on military flights, and we could also consider it likely that these flights will first fly to the Christmas Island detention centre, rather than on to the Australian mainland,” spokesman Jack Smit said. “Perhaps we will soon be able to conclude what the true reasons are for the building of the Christmas Island detention centre.”

Questions have been asked about last year’s mysterious visit to Christmas Island of US Government officials who toured the facility, but this may tip into Grassy Knoll territory.

Crikey contacted Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews’s office for a comment this morning, but the minister’s office didn’t get back to us before deadline.  

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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