Refugee plan 'against international law

Friday Apr 20 09:23 AEST

The government's plan to swap Australia-bound asylum seekers with those trying to enter the United States breaches international law, one of the world's leading human rights advocacy groups says.

Under plans outlined earlier this week, Cuban and Haitian refugees held at Guantanamo Bay could be resettled in Australia, while asylum seekers intercepted en route to Australia and sent to Nauru would be resettled in the United States.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews claims the move would be a further deterrent to people smugglers.

But Human Rights Watch refugee policy director Bill Frelick said the plan violated international conventions relating to refugees.

"The principles that govern detention for refugees - and these are recognised refugees - say that refugees should not be detained solely as a deterrent," Mr Frelick told ABC radio.

"And the rationale that is given for this swap is solely as a deterrent, so this contradicts that fundamental principle."

Asked if he believed the policy would be found to breach international law if challenged in the courts, he said "I think it would be".

The policy was targeted at genuine refugees who had been investigated and found unable to return home over a well-founded fear of prosecution, Mr Frelick said.

In many cases the refugees were going to a particular country to reunite with their families or communities who could help support them.

Mr Frelick said the plan seemed completely inappropriate for two countries with long traditions of providing refuge and humane policies of family reunification.

"It just seems unseemly, it seems inhumane," he said.

The arrangement was not the same as commonplace third party resettlements, he said, as resettlements were voluntary.

US officials might claim no one would be forced to accept the arrangement, but it was akin to coercion for a refugee whose only other option was indefinite detention.

"This is a trade in human beings," Mr Frelick said.

Some refugees groups have praised the policy for giving refugees another resettlement option, but Mr Frelick said its benefit would only apply to the particularly desperate.

"If you are being kept at Guantanamo indefinitely, than you become desperate I suppose - as you could say for refugees at Nauru island," he said.

"However the more straightforward and the most humane approach would be to let them proceed on to the United States and Australia once they've been found to be refugees."

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