- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The United States has agreed to take in 200 of the hundreds of asylum-seekers who are interdicted at sea every year trying to reach Australia’s shores, in an unusual deal under which 200 Cubans and Haitians attempting to get to the United States will be sent to Australia.

U.S. and Australian officials said the accord, which is unofficial and not legally binding, was aimed at discouraging people from undertaking the sea voyage by warning them that they might end up in a country half a world away, where they have no cultural links.

“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,” Australian Prime Minister John Howard told reporters in Canberra.

In Washington, the State Department said the fact that the same number of people are to be resettled in the countries annually does not mean the operation is “an exchange or swap.”

“The United States and Australia will each consider individuals for settlement in accordance with our own regulations and procedures respectively,” said department spokesman Sean McCormack. “These may include individual interviews and security background checks.”

Asylum-seekers who are caught by Australian authorities at sea are first sent to immigration detention camps in the island nations of Nauru or Papua New Guinea, or in Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory near Indonesia that is a favorite drop-off point for human traffickers.

Those who qualify for refugee status are admitted to Australia, while the rest are sent back to their homelands or other countries willing to take them. Mr. Howard said Australia accepts 13,000 refugees a year.

Critics of the plan said it would create a back door to the United States for people who would never be able to get here otherwise.

Australian opposition legislator Tony Burke said many asylum-seekers headed for Australia would be more than happy to live in the United States and predicted that even more would try to sail to Australian shores.

“What John Howard is doing is sending a message to the world that says: ‘If you can get a people-smuggler to get you as far as Christmas Island, then John Howard will pick up the fare to New York,’ ” Mr. Burke said.

He accused Mr. Howard of trying to score political points only months before parliamentary elections in September, in which the prime minister’s conservative Liberal Party is hoping to win another term in office.

Immigration is a hot topic in Australia, and the government has been accused of keeping thousands of asylum-seekers in the detention camps in conditions that do not meet humanitarian standards.

The first beneficiaries of the new agreement are expected to be about 90 Sri Lankans and Burmese now held at the Nauru camp, provided they qualify for resettlement in the United States as genuine refugees.

Cuban, Haitian and other immigrants who try to reach the U.S. shore are usually held at the Naval base in Guantanamo Bay separate from terrorist detainees.

The United States received 55,000 of the 303,400 asylum applications for 50 industrialized countries last year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said last month.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports

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