The Atlantic Solution

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The Australian Government recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the United States that will enable the two countries to ‘swap refugees.’

Under the MOU, up to 200 refugees processed in Nauru by the Australian Government may be exchanged for refugees processed in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, by the USA.

From an Australian perspective, the ‘swap’ appears illogical. The exchange of refugees will be expensive and of very little benefit to Australia. However, the new scheme makes sense when one examines the enormous benefits it presents for the US.

This is not the first time that the US has sent refugees to other countries Australia accepted a family from the immigration facility at Guant á namo Bay in 2002. At that time, the then Minister for Immigration, Phillip Ruddock, denied allegations that a refugee swap with the US was on the cards.

The US has also been in negotiations with Canada, and earlier this year the Czech Republic accepted several families processed in Guantánamo Bay.

So why has the United States been so keen to send refugees processed in Cuba overseas?

The immigration facility in Guantánamo Bay has largely been used for the detention of Haitian and Cuban nationals, but it is the Cubans that are of most concern to the US, and they are the ones most likely to be sent to Australia. The US Government has, for some time, been forced to balance the interests of powerful groups in the US made up of Cuban exiles with its desire to appear tough on border protection.

Many of the Cuban exiles in the US support immigration policies that both recognise people fleeing the Castro regime in Cuba as refugees, and open the doors to Cubans who wish to migrate to the US in the belief that granting refugee status to Cubans and encouraging dissent in Cuba sends a strong message to the world that the Castro Government persecutes its own people.

Ever since 1959’s Cuban Revolution, the US has instituted laws and policies that make it easier for Cuban citizens to migrate to the United States and be recognised as refugees. The Cuban Adjustment Act (1966) gives priority immigration status to Cubans fleeing the Castro Government, granting them permanent residency after living in the US for one year.

Such generous US policies towards Cubans have not resulted in mass exodus because of Cuba’s reluctance to allow its citizens to emigrate. Following the end of the Cold War, however, Cuba’s ability or desire to enforce its emigration controls declined and culminated in Fidel Castro’s announcement in August 1994 that he would not prevent any Cubans from leaving Cuba.

Following this announcement, 37,191 people left Cuba but were stopped by the US on the high seas and sent to detention in Guantánamo Bay as part of the controversial ‘wet foot, dry foot policy’ whereby Cubans who reach the US are treated very differently to those intercepted at sea.

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In May 1995, Castro once again closed Cuba’s borders, but this did not completely stop the stream of asylum seekers leaving the country. While the detention of Cubans in Guantánamo Bay does send a tough border protection message, it does little to appease Cuban interest groups in the US. The policy has been politically costly for both Republican and Democrat Presidents and has, in the past, been abandoned for short periods of time.

The exchange of refugees with Australia offers a much more workable solution. It enables the US to show that it’s tough on border protection while placating the Cuban exiles through resettling Cubans that didn’t make it onto US territory. Many Cuban exile groups have responded positively to the MOU with Australia.

While there are well-established and longstanding Cuban communities in the US, the Cuban community in Australia is relatively small. It is unlikely that the US will send Cubans with family in the US to Australia. However, it will be gambling that separation from community networks will be enough to deter many Cubans without family in the US from attempting to reach that country.

So what will Australia gain?

Australia may be able to appease Nauru by moving asylum seekers out of the processing centre on the small Pacific nation more quickly. Nauru has become increasingly impatient with the length of time many asylum seekers are forced to remain on its territory under the ‘Pacific Solution.’

The Federal Government may also be able to separate asylum seekers from families already in Australia in the hope that such additional hardship will deter future asylum seekers. However, it is unlikely that the promise of asylum in the US will actually deter anyone who was coming to Australia to seek safety from persecution.

Finally, the Federal Government may be hoping that such a controversial policy may shift the debates leading up to the forthcoming Federal election away from IR reform and WorkChoices to immigration an issue it feels much more comfortable with.

The human cost of the ‘swap’ will be high and will be paid by refugees, who will be further displaced and traumatised by being traded between countries. It will also be an extraordinarily expensive exercise. Offshore processing of asylum seekers is already costly for both the Australian and US Governments. Detention of asylum seekers in Guantánamo Bay costs the United States US$700,000 per day, while the offshore processing centre in Nauru costs Australia AU$24 million per year.

In addition to these continuing costs, both the US and Australia will have to pay the cost of transferring and resettling up to 200 refugees in another country.

The MOU between Australia and the United States will further entrench the commitment of the two Governments to offshore processing. And it will not be reviewed until April 2009.

The question that Australians must now ask is: Should Australian taxpayers be footing the bill for a policy that does little more than provide greater convenience for the US, especially when it results in more suffering for an already vulnerable group of people?

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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