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By Philippe Legrain ADD COMMENTS

Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has long been shockingly inhumane. But prime minister John Howard’s latest policy twist is truly despicable: he plans to "swap" would-be refugees held in the country’s illegal offshore detention centres with Cuban and Haitian detainees the US is holding in Guantanamo Bay. People are to be treated as chattel, shipped off half-way across the world at the whim of a desperately unpopular politician who will seemingly go to any lengths to bolster his chances of re-election later this year. The first asylum seekers to be exchanged are likely to be the 83 Sri Lankans and eight Burmese held on the Pacific island of Nauru, according to the BBC.

Howard’s rationale is simple: treat ’em mean and hope they’ll be less keen to try to come to Australia in the first place. No matter that people fleeing persecution have already suffered enough in their home country; no matter that the UN’s refugee convention, which the Australian government has signed up to, legally commits Australia (and other signatories) to give refuge to those fearing for their lives at home; deterring people who dare – how presumptuous of them! – to cross the world in search of a better life from heading Down Under is everything.

Each element of this policy is abhorrent. Even if one presumes, as Howard does, that some (or even most) of the people detained on Nauru do not have legitimate claims for asylum, how can it be right to treat them all – including those, such as torture victims, who are genuine refugees – inhumanely? Even people with disfiguring scars elicit scepticism rather than sympathy from hard-hearted immigration officials – after all, they reason, the wounds might be self-inflicted.

In truth, of course, one cannot neatly distinguish refugees from "economic migrants" – most people move for a variety of motives – any more than the Victorians could separate the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor. And in any case, given that there is no other legal route for most people from poor countries to go work in Australia, is pretending to be a refugee really such an ignoble crime that it warrants ever more elaborate mistreatment by the Australian government? Immigrants from Sri Lanka or Burma are not an invading army; they are mostly people seeking a better life for themselves and their family, just like the millions of Britons who have moved to Australia in recent decades.

One might have hoped that the opposition Labor Party would take Howard to task for this. Unfortunately not. Immigration spokesman Tony Burke’s criticism was instead that the new policy would attract, rather than deter, boat people. "If you are in one of the refugee camps around the world, there is no more attractive destination than to think you can get a ticket to the USA," he said. "What John Howard is doing is saying to the people around the world: if you want to get to the US, the way to it is to hop on a boat and go to [Australia’s] Christmas Island."

Perhaps feeding people to the sharks would be a more effective deterrent.

Posted 18 Apr 2007 in Blog

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